Colorado and Wyoming’s Nobel laureates

SIDNEY ALTMAN

Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bachelor in Science; University of Colorado, Boulder, doctorate; Harvard University, postdoctoral fellow; MRC Laboratory, Cambridge, visiting research fellow.

Place of employment: Yale University, Sterling professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and chemistry.

Description of work that received the Nobel: Discovery of a catalytic RNA enzyme.

Impact of that work: Had a widespread impact on the basis of the origin of life and on people studying different kinds of RNA inside cells.

What do you think is the most important discovery ever made? I have no idea what the most important discovery ever made is. Perhaps, it might be the discovery of how to make fire.

THOMAS CECH

Education: Grinnell College, Bachelor of Arts; University of California, Berkeley, doctorate; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, postdoctoral research.

Place of employment: CU Boulder, distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and molecular, cellular and developmental biology; CU BioFrontiers Institute, director; Howard Hughes Medical Institute, investigator.

Description of work that received the Nobel: Along with Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech, discovered that RNA in living cells is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a biocatalyst.

Impact of that work: This discovery, which came as a complete surprise to scientists, concerns fundamental aspects of the molecular basis of life. Many chapters in our textbooks had to be revised.

What do you think is the most important discovery ever made? Charles Darwin’s natural selection.

ERIC CORNELL

Education: Stanford University, Bachelor in Science; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, doctorate.

Place of employment: Cornell is a fellow of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, chair and fellow of JILA (a joint institute of CU Boulder and NIST) and an adjoint professor of physics at CU Boulder.

Description of work that received the Nobel: Cornell and Carl Wieman were cited for their landmark 1995 creation of the world’s first Bose-Einstein condensate, a new form of matter that occurs at just a few hundred-billionths of a degree above absolute zero, and their early studies of the condensate’s properties.

Impact of that work: The discovery launched a new field of atomic physics that has spawned thousands of scientific papers and a treasure-trove of scientific discoveries. The original apparatus that made the Boulder discovery is now at the Smithsonian Institution.

JOHN “JAN” HALL

Education: Carnegie Institute of Technology, Bachelor in Science and Master of Science; Carnegie-Mellon University, doctorate.

Place of employment: Hall is an adjoint professor of physics at CU Boulder, a retired fellow of JILA and a scientist emeritus at NIST.

Description of work that received the Nobel: Hall’s work in developing an optical frequency comb allowed scientists to more accurately measure the frequencies of visible light, a highly difficult task because the frequencies are so small. Hall was cited for his “contributions to the development of laser-based precision spectroscopy, including the optical frequency comb technique.”

Impact of that work: Hall’s research helped transform lasers from a laboratory curiosity into a widely used tool in fields including telecommunications, electronics and medicine.

CRAIG MELLO

Education: Brown University, Bachelor in Science; University of Colorado, molecular, cell and developmental biology graduate program (transferred after two years, no degree); Harvard University, doctorate.

Place of employment: RNA Therapeutics Institute, co-director; Blais chair of molecular medicine; investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and its program in molecular medicine.

Description of work that received the Nobel: Co-discovery of RNA interference, a natural gene regulatory mechanism that uses short pieces of RNA as guide sequences to shut down cognate genes.

Impact of that work: RNAi allows researchers to turn off the expression of any gene at will. Synthetic RNAs are available targeting every human gene and researchers can introduce them into cells in order to determine the function of any given gene. The same system functions in all animals and plants so there are many exciting applications in basic science and agriculture.

What do you think is the most important discovery ever made? The personal discovery of essence (purpose and meaning), which follows from the contemplation of the mystery of existence in every human life. In science it would probably be the domestication of wheat, because without farmers there would be no scientists. In biology, the discovery of the relatedness of all life, evolution, and the remarkable degree to which the molecules of life, DNA, RNA and protein, still reflect that common origin today.

JASON F. SHOGREN

Education: University of Minnesota, Duluth, Bachelor of Arts; University of Wyoming, doctorate.

Place of employment: University of Wyoming, Stroock professor and chair.

Description of work that received the Nobel: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, along with Vice President Al Gore for their work on the science and policy of climate change. As a member of the IPCC, all us scientists were a “party to the prize.” My work was as a lead author on a chapter on costing methodologies. The chapter examined what we know about how to put a price tag on reducing the risk posed by climate change, through investing in mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Impact of that work: The IPCC has had a significant impact on the discussion and debate on climate change, both within the science and policy communities. The IPCC continues to work on assessment reports, and continues to influence decision makers around the globe.

What do you think is the most important discovery ever made? In economics, the idea that matters most is that trade/coordination creates economic value and well-being. In general, Sir Isaac Newton’s universal gravitation and laws of motion.

CARL WIEMAN

Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bachelor in Science; Stanford University, doctorate.

Place of employment: Wieman is a distinguished professor of physics, fellow of JILA (a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology located on the CU campus) and a President’s Teaching Scholar at CU Boulder. He is currently on leave from his 20 percent appointment at CU and 80 percent appointment at the University of British Columbia.

Description of work that received the Nobel: Wieman and Eric Cornell were cited for their landmark 1995 creation of the world’s first Bose-Einstein condensate, a new form of matter that occurs at just a few hundred-billionths of a degree above absolute zero, and their early studies of the condensate’s properties.

Impact of that work: The discovery launched a new field of atomic physics that has spawned thousands of scientific papers and a treasure-trove of scientific discoveries. The original apparatus that made the Boulder discovery is now at the Smithsonian Institution.

DAVID WINELAND

Education: University of California, Berkeley, Bachelor of Arts; Harvard University, doctorate; University of Washington, postdoctoral research.

Place of employment: National Institute of Standards and Technology and University of Colorado, Boulder, group leader and NIST fellow.

Description of work that received the Nobel: Wineland shared the prize with Serge Haroche of the Collège de France and Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris for “ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”

Impact of that work: The Nobel citation notes that Wineland and Haroche’s methods have enabled science to take “the very first steps towards building a new type of super-fast computer based on quantum physics. Perhaps the quantum computer will change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century. The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time, with more than hundred-fold greater precision than present-day cesium clocks.”

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