Nobel Prizes explained
Photo by Evan Krape November 20, 2018
Faculty members describe laureates’ groundbreaking work
This year’s Nobel Prize winners epitomize interdisciplinary work — work that is making an impact on everyday lives around the world — a University of Delaware audience was told on Tuesday, Nov. 13.
The 2018 laureates include an economist who delves into scientific and public health research to devise ways to combat climate change, chemists whose discoveries have led to groundbreaking new drugs to treat autoimmune diseases and cancer, and a gynecologist who devotes his life to ending sexual violence as a weapon of war.
The details and significance of all the prize-winning work was described at UD’s annual Nobel Prize Symposium, held in the Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory.
The symposium consisted of five short talks delivered by University faculty members who conduct research and scholarship in areas closely connected to those that won this year’s awards. Each talk was followed by the opportunity for audience members to ask questions.
Sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), the symposium gives interested members of the University community and the public more in-depth information about the laureates’ work than is typically found in general news stories about the prizes.
It also showcases UD’s “stellar faculty” who themselves work in such important areas of study, said John A. Pelesko, interim CAS dean. Pelesko welcomed the audience to the event, which was organized by John Jungck, professor of biological and of mathematical sciences, and Karen Rosenberg, professor of anthropology.
The following are the 2018 prizes highlighted at the symposium. No literature prize was awarded this year.
Georgina Ramsay, assistant professor of anthropology, described the efforts by Nobel Peace Prize winners Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad to combat war crimes, in particular the use of sexual violence as a weapon.
Ramsay, who has conducted fieldwork with refugees from war-torn African nations, began by reminding the audience of recent wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo that left more than 5 million people dead and yet never drew much of the world’s attention. Those conflicts, she said, also resulted in thousands of victims of sexual violence.
Mukwege, a physician, returned to his native country and established a hospital in 1999 to treat those victims of rape and mutilation.
“Denis Mukwege worked to restore their sense of self,” Ramsay said, noting that having autonomy over our body is a fundamental source of personal power and that losing that control is extremely destabilizing.
Mukwege, she said, has pioneered ways to help these sexual violence victims and has dedicated himself not just to physical treatment “but also to the holistic care of violence survivors and their families and loved ones.”
Ramsay also described Murad, who was a victim of war crimes and refused to stay silent, becoming a strong advocate against sexual violence and often bonding with other survivors by publicly sharing her own story.
Physiology or Medicine
Salil A. Lachke, associate professor of biological sciences, spoke about the work done by James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo, winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
These laureates “released the brakes of immunity” as they discovered “a landmark in our fight against cancer,” the Nobel organization said in announcing the prize.
Lachke explained how the body’s immune system works, attacking infection when needed but then switching itself off when the threat is gone. For years, he said, researchers have wondered how to stop this braking mechanism in the case of cancer and instead keep the immune system active so that it can attack tumors.
“The challenge is that there are 20,000 genes in the human genome, and you have to identify the specific ones” that deactivate the immune system and then figure out how to interrupt that process, Lachke said.
Allison and Honjo were each able to work with specific proteins that operate as brakes on the immune system, resulting in new approaches for cancer treatment that have proved to be highly effective.
The research conducted by this year’s recipients of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry also has resulted in important new medical treatments, including cancer drugs, as well as novel methods of manufacturing such chemical substances as pharmaceuticals.
Sharon Rozovsky, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, discussed this work done by Nobel Prize in Chemistry laureates Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter.
Arnold was looking for a way to use enzymes (“the catalysts of life”) instead of traditional chemistry to create products in a more environmentally friendly way, Rozovsky said, and she devised a method of protein engineering that mimics natural selection to evolve enzymes.
The result, known as “directed evolution,” was used by Smith and Winter in their work. Smith developed a new method called phage display to evolve new proteins, and Winter used that method for the directed evolution of antibodies, which are proteins that work with the immune system.
“These therapeutic antibodies led to a revolution in the medical field,” Rozovsky said. “The pharmaceutical landscape has shifted to biologics,” with the most of the top-10 best-selling drugs now developed from antibodies.
The drugs treat autoimmune and other serious diseases, including some metastatic cancers.
“We can now treat cancers that used to be considered terminal,” Rozovsky said.
Laurence Seidman, Chaplin Tyler Professor of Economics, explained the work done by William D. Nordhaus and Paul M. Romer, who will receive the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.
The two economists have done pioneering work in ways to integrate innovation and the effects of climate change with economic growth and prosperity.
Seidman particularly described Nordhaus’ approach to addressing climate change, emphasizing his in-depth consideration of the many disciplines that factor into this complex subject. While most economists might avoid academic research in physics, chemistry and public health as outside their field, Nordhaus has studied that research in detail, he said.
As a result, he’s been able to create a quantitative model to look at the costs of climate change and the economic measures that can be taken — such as a carbon tax on manufacturers who emit greenhouse gases — to address the problem. His model, Seidman said, can be used to calculate a possible optimum tax that would limit climate change while maintaining growth.
“Just like people do in everyday life, you have to weigh costs and benefits,” and Nordhaus’ calculations do that, Seidman said.
He also explained Romer’s work in developing a theory explaining how new knowledge stimulates growth. That work has led to a great deal of other economic research on regulations and policies that encourage new ideas.
Barry C. Walker, professor of physics and astronomy at UD, studies the physics of atoms in ultra-high-intensity laser fields, light whose intensity is billions and billions of times more intense than sunlight on Earth.
At the symposium, Walker brought his expertise to a discussion of the work done by Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland, winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.
Walker explained that the laureates’ work has revolutionized the field of laser physics with groundbreaking inventions.
Ashkin invented what the Nobel organization called “optical tweezers that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers.”
Strickland and Mourou opened the door to ultrafast and intense laser pulses. The new technique they developed for high-intensity lasers has been used in millions of eye surgeries that are performed every year. Its many other potential applications are still being explored.
Walker also summarized some of the traits that he said many Nobel laureates share: “These are professors who teach. … They are colleagues who encourage others. … They are modest and great at the same time.”
More information is available about the Nobel Prizes and this year’s laureates at the Nobel Prize website.