Nobel laureate got D in chemistry class; Nobel Prize winner Peter Agre tells Shobana Kesava how he went from teen rebel to chemistry genius
HE HAD to get his long hair chopped off before being allowed into Singapore in 1970 but, today, Professor PeterCourtland Agre is a welcome guest here. The 59-year-old American Nobel laureate in chemistry was here recently as chief judge of a national sciencecompetition for students.
Do you think it’s possible to groom a Nobel laureate in Singapore?
I can see how Singapore could see its value. It’s like having an Olympic champion and how that would bring recognition and attention and other leading scientists here, but I think the pressure that you will get is deadly.
The prize is for the discovery that changes the course of science. We discovered how water enters and leaves cells and there’re a lot of things related to that.
I’d be very careful about grooming a laureate because I can tell you I’m totally ungroomed. That said, I had manyopportunities: I was able to see science from a young age. My father was an industrial chemist who eventually became professor of chemistry at Augsberg College. He had a wonderful friend called Linus Pauling, who won two Nobelprizes, for chemistry and peace. They were examples of good scientists to me. But I was not the promising puppy that was being groomed for the Nobel prize.
Did you spend time with Professor Pauling?
He used to come to our house. He was a hero to me, a role model more for what he did for society than what he didin the laboratory.
He won the peace prize for individually leading the efforts to end the testing of nuclear arms in the atmosphere. He did this on his own, not as part of the faculty position.
I think it would be great for Singapore to have a Nobel laureate but you’ve probably heard of this name: Jonas Salk. This was the man who made the polio vaccine in the United States. He never won the Nobel Prize but, what’s moreimportant – winning the prize or curing polio? Of course, it’s curing polio. It’s the science that’s important, not therecognition.
In your first chemistry class, you got a D. Isn’t it ironic that you won the prize in chemistry?
Yes, in fact, it was much worse than that. I was enrolled in high school but I did nothing. I should have got an F. Iwas poorly behaved and stayed in school only because I was interested in girls and athletics.
My dad was a chemistry professor who was conservative and wanted me to be a success and, naturally, what would a young person do? I rebelled.
Parents sometimes want children to be perfect and they put pressure on eight-year-olds to get involved in science,to win the Nobel Prize. But it’s way too early. It doesn’t work. If it is not in their hearts, they won’t do it.
Even when I was 17, my interests were politics. I travelled in Russia, I was interested in girls, I was in athletics, Iwas a competitive ski-racer – anything but science. It’s amusing now, but then my dad presented the Nobel Prize as the Holy Grail. I guess it’s fitting I won the prizeafter he died, otherwise he’d be bragging about it. We should not take ourselves so seriously. We will all be forgotten.
You started out wanting to be a medical doctor?
Yes. I wanted to be a missionary doctor. I travelled in Asia and came to Singapore, in fact, in 1970.I backpacked and had to have a haircut in Johor Baru before I came through. I wanted to get involved in the diseases that affected the poorest of the poor.
It was really the medicine that drew me back to science. I never felt I had the heart or intellect to do basic science, but I wanted to help people and that’s why I did it. Maybe the true scientists will say those are impure motives, but I’ve never been very good at following directions.
How critical is creativity for a successful scientist?
Creativity is not enough. I was very focused. I got training in a basic lab and wasn’t travelling anymore and my wife decided to stay home to take care of our four children.
So young people have to be committed, have the talent and they’ll have opportunities. Perfect grades are not everything.
No one knows Leonardo da Vinci’s grades. He was a painter, engineer, architect, he was many things, but he would commit real energy to each.
Thirty-five years ago, would you have picked me to interview? Would people have said I’d achieve anything? Probably not. Singapore has to take a few chances on young people who may not fit the cookie-cutter mould.
For those who want to achieve something unique, you need to be in the right place at the right time and your eyes have to be wide open.
Such as when you offered to trade in your Nobel Prize for two weeks on The Colbert Report (a spoof of the news on Comedy Central in the US)? Why did you do that?
I would have been seen by millions every night. I’m told it gets three million viewers a night, and they replay it and you can access it on the Net. I would have reached out to more young people than I’ve done in my life.
The people who watch The Colbert Report are from 16 to 35 years old – Generation Y – as they call it, which is my kids’ generation. After working for decades in a laboratory, you’re a footnote. You get on The Colbert Report and you’re a celebrity! I take advantage of opportunities to put a human face on science.
People need that because the public sees scientists as very old men who have no sense of humour and (abruptlymessing up his neatly combed hair and tipping his glasses sideways on his nose) thinks we’re like this, and yeah, we’re like this some of the time, but not all of the time.
Scientists are real people with loves and passion, and young people should realise that being a scientist is not a devotion to a monastic calling. It’s exciting.
You’re seeing the future. And you can have a normal life.
What needs to be done to promote science among the young?
I think we need to put role models in front of young people whom they can become interested and believe in. If it’s portrayed as technical, cold and dark nights in the laboratory looking at data, it’s ridiculous. This is not something froma Frankenstein movie.
When young people pick careers, they have two issues: One is what do they find interesting and the other is what do their parents find interesting?
The parents want their sons and daughters to become successful medical doctors, lawyers or business executives. Their success means the family will do well and prosper, but the young are more interested in what’s fun, what’s cool,what’s interesting.
And scientists have largely failed to connect with young people.
In my whole life in science, I have never felt bored.
It’s exciting because I want to bring information to people that they need, that affects society and their lives. Sooner or later, someone will make an observation that will connect to curing a disease, and that is what we have to communicate.
What’s next for you?
Early in my career, I decided I would publish 100 papers and I would have learnt enough. People make their best discoveries by 40. I was 36 when we discovered aquaporin. Then at age 50, I thought I would boost something other than my own laboratory.
I seriously considered running for the Senate in 2004, but it was too expensive. I would advise others in science who can, to get involved in politics though. We can make a difference even by being on school boards. Scientists should be trained in public life.
What’s your advice to young people?
It would be something the great American writer Mark Twain said: ‘The man who does not read good books doesnot have any advantage over those who cannot read.
‘We need to challenge ourselves all the time. We can never assume we know it all.
Professor Peter Courtland Agre, 59, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003. He shares the prize with Dr Roderick MacKinnon for having discovered a family of proteins that channels water called aquaporins.