A Nobel In Chemistry, Through The Eyes Of “Families”
Most scientists end up having two families. The first is the one they are born or adopted into. But the second, the lab family, can be every bit as important. I’ve been fortunate to connect with “lab family” members who never overlapped with me at the benchtop, but who share a sense of camaraderie because of our shared mentors. In fact, I credit one of my Sorensen lab siblings, Lucy Stark, with helping me make the “alternative career” connections that put me where I am today.
Robert J. Lefkowitz, who took home half of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has both kinds of family in spades. At a Duke press conference, colleagues extolled his talents as a teacher and mentor to hundreds of scientists, including his fellow laureate Brian Kobilka. Intrepid Terra Sig blogger, David Kroll, who had an excellent post about the chemistry Nobel on Wednesday morning, ventured to Duke to capture the celebrations with Lefkowitz’ lab family. (Thank you, David, for sharing your photos!)
And via Twitter, I learned about the reaction to the prize from a member of Lefkowitz’ outside-the-lab family: his daughter, Cheryl Renée Herbsman (née Lefkowitz), an author.
Wow, just found out my dad won the Nobel Prize in chemistry! cnn.com/2012/10/10/wor…
— Cheryl Herbsman (@cherylherbsman) October 10, 2012
I emailed Herbsman a few questions, which she was gracious enough to answer. I’ve lightly edited this exchange for grammar and content.
CD: Growing up, what kinds of things did you hear from your father about what he worked on?
CRH: Growing up, I don’t think my siblings and I necessarily understood what our father was researching. We knew it had to do with receptors, but that might have been the full extent of our understanding. Sometimes he would talk at dinner about whether the research was going well or not. Occasionally he would take us to the lab with him on a Saturday morning, where we would have wheeled desk-chair races and explore the walk-in refrigerators. Often, we would hear him dictate papers into his Dictaphone. The words didn’t mean much to us. But I remember my younger sister writing up “scientific papers” of her own with a lot of important-sounding made-up words. My dad always ended the dictation by saying, “RJL etc.” So my sister ended hers with her initials, etc., as well.
How much did you and your siblings realize how well-known your dad’s work was? Did you have any idea he might win a Nobel Prize someday?
When we were kids we didn’t realize how important his research would become. But as we got older, and he began winning more recognition for his work, it became more and more clear how much his work mattered. All of us, and my children as well, were lucky enough to attend the ceremony at the White House when he received the National Medal of Science.
Did your dad’s science career have any effect on your relationship with science in school and in life? How so?
I don’t know if it affected my relationship with science. He never pressured any of us to follow in his footsteps. But I think his dedication to his work taught me to work hard, to hang in there when things weren’t going the way I wanted them to, and to never give up.
In the acknowledgements for your novel, “Breathing”, you mentioned your father’s support. That’s interesting to me because others have been talking today about your father’s skills as a mentor. What about your dad do you think makes him a good advice-giver or giver of support?
He has always been someone who can think things through rationally, so he made a great sounding board. He was able to keep his own opinions out of the equation, so he could help us figure out what it was we really wanted to do. He has a way of being reassuring in stressful times, staying calm, trusting that things will work out. In addition, he always encouraged me to go after my dreams. He made me believe that with enough determination I could make them reality.
Is it true you babysat for Brian Kobilka’s kids?
I did babysit for Brian Kobilka’s kids for a week one summer when they needed childcare. I remember watching Nickelodeon with them and making Rice Krispie Treats.
What do you most want the world to know about your dad?
He is a dedicated and passionate man who truly loves what he does. He has often told me that he feels very fortunate that work to him is like play, and some days he can’t believe they pay him to do it. He said he thought this was one of life’s great secrets – that is, to find work one truly loves.