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UC Berkeley professor, Nobel laureate, champions public higher education

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NOVEMBER 15, 2013

It is a Tuesday morning and Randy Schekman is calling roll to a group of wide-eyed freshmen. They are staring at him in admiration, but none respond.

He sputters and shakes the paper in his hands in mock frustration — he has grabbed last year’s roster. Forgivable, perhaps, as his desk is currently a collage of congratulatory messages and invitations to foreign countries, one of which has offered him $50,000 to speak at an event.

Schekman is UC Berkeley’s 22nd Nobel Laureate and the campus’ newest celebrity. Although weeks have passed since the announcement, the accolades and invitations keep coming.

But Schekman is a busy man — which is why he turned down the invitation that would have made him thousands of dollars richer.

“I told them to call me next year,” he said. Perhaps he’d be free then.

He has thousands of emails piling up, and Schekman, who replied to inquiries for this article at four in the morning, is not one to fall behind in his work.

It makes him feel awkward, he says.

A true product of the UC

It might be said that Schekman honed this work ethic at the University of California.

In some sense, in fact, Schekman is very much a creation of the UC, having studied, researched and taught at three separate institutions within California’s premier higher education system. He has not forgotten what the UC has given him, and has proven himself a vocal advocate of public higher education.

As a UCLA grad, and a beneficiary of what was once hearty state funding, Schekman today calls California’s diminishing investment in the UC  “tragic,” and advocates strongly in support of public higher education.

In a press conference on Oct. 7 — the day of the Nobel Prize announcement — Schekman vowed to use whatever glory bestowed to him to “spread the word of the importance of public higher education.”

Schekman said that while private universities often perpetuate privilege, with legacies based on wealth, public universities are engines of social change.

“Randy appreciates what this university stands for, the equal access, the diversity, the social good that a public university provides,” said Jeremy Thorner, a longtime friend and colleague in the campus department of molecular and cell biology. “It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from. As long as you’re willing to work hard and take advantage of what’s being offered here, you can succeed.”

Schekman, with his great promise and middle-class background, was just the kind of student that so often winds up at the UC. He grew up as one of five children in a Minnesota family that was not even sure it could afford to send him to college.

But after his family moved to California when Schekman was ten, the dream became much more attainable. Schekman was able to save up enough money from a summer job to pay for a whole semester at UCLA, capitalizing on a surge in state funding under former California Governor Pat Brown in the 1960’s.

Tuition was 40 dollars a semester, and debt was practically a myth.

“Somehow we’ve got to claw our way back,” Schekman said. “The fees are never going to go down but the people who have resources should recognize that this is no longer as publicly supported as it used to be and they need to pony-up.”

Additionally, researchers at public universities like UC Berkeley have also seen dollars dwindle. As critical federal funding to institutes like the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation has steadily receded, many researchers have made the move overseas to “greener pastures.”

Though Schekman receives offers from prestigious private institutions like Harvard University and Caltech every few years, he has loyally remained at UC Berkeley since his appointment in 1976.

“Would it be better to be at Stanford for what I do? I don’t think so,” Schekman said. “Maybe some places have a lot of equipment, but Berkeley is unusually strong. We’re more collegial, and our people are more cooperative…it’s people that make things happen.”

Schekman could well be speaking of himself. In the more than 30 years he has spent on campus, Schekman has improved the quality of how scientific journals operate and has also held an assortment of impactful positions on campus, including division head of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.

“Randy does just not pay lip service to, but imbues in himself those principles of equal access, fair play, upward mobility and the common good that public institutions provide for society,” Thorner said.

Coming full circle

Before becoming a UC Berkeley professor, Schekman was an insatiable student at UCLA, devouring an advanced biology book in his leisure time “like it was the Bible.”

His undergraduate research advisor at UCLA, Dan Ray, recalled that by the time Schekman entered Ray’s lab, he already had a stronger grasp on molecular biology than many graduate students. With his own ideas concerning bacterial genetics already beginning to materialize, Schekman “jumped at any opportunity” to get in the lab.

The inquisitive student who as a child would stare endlessly at the creatures swimming in pond scum would now turn to the “fascinating” inner workings of a cell, studying fundamental cell processes like DNA replication.

It was perhaps this intensity and dedication to understanding the world around him that led Schekman to knock unannounced on the door of 1959 Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg – the “greatest biochemist” of the later 20th century — during a pit stop at Stanford University after a football game.

“He knew Kornberg was at Stanford so he thought, ‘Well I’ll stop by and tell him some of my ideas’,” Ray said. “It was extremely brave, and undoubtedly a factor in the doctor’s decision to later take him on as a graduate student.”

Schekman later transitioned from stranger to colleague when he worked in Kornberg’s lab as a graduate student at Stanford. Working alongside Kornberg, Schekman embraced a new approach to chromosome replication, a style that fused the logics of both genetics and biochemistry by using chemicals to create genetic mutations. More intuitively, he learned from Kornberg how to think about a complicated problem, by taking it apart piece by piece, Schekman said.

Schekman’s passion for understanding the basic “nuts and bolts” of science ultimately led to his 2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, for research he conducted in the 1970’s. Schekman was recognized for his mechanical dissection of how proteins are taken from the site where they are made, through a series of membrane vesicles and on their way to be dumped out of the cell.

By isolating genetically mutated yeast cells, Schekman, alongside graduate student Peter Novick, was able to “cripple the process” and gain crucial information about the proteins at each step in this secretion process. Schekman shares the prize with James Rothman of Yale University and Thomas Sudhof of Stanford University.

Other labs soon discovered that in sequencing the human genome, the genes and proteins present had the same function as those in Schekman’s yeast-cell clones. This revelation made it obvious to the biotechnology industry that they could harness the power of fermentation in yeast to make commercial quantities of insulin. Today, one-third of human insulin is produced by yeast.

But this medical application was not part of the plan when Schekman embarked on the project with Novick, with whom Schekman believes he should share the award. He was instead entirely driven by simply how the cell worked.

“I was just curious,” Schekman said, adding that in studying basic science, even in seemingly obscure studies with agents “as silly as yeast,” profound practical applications will naturally ensue.

At the time of his work with Kornberg, studying cell processes by “breaking cells open” and reconstructing them in the test tube was considered too risky by most molecular biologists. But it is precisely through his forsaking of tradition that Schekman hopes to serve as an example to his students.

“I like to get people enthusiastic about their ideas—you can’t just tell someone to do this, do that… it just doesn’t work,” Schekman said. “People are going to succeed or fail on their own merits, and if I can provide an environment conducive to their doing well — because there are good ideas worth pursuing — that’s my job.”

Although Richard Harland, co-chair of the UC Berkeley department of molecular and cell biology, said Schekman’s research seminars are “some of the most challenging and sophisticated” on campus, Schekman has for many years taught a freshman seminar, where colleagues say he excels at not only comprehensively breaking down his research, but also instilling in students a passion for the subject.

“He communicates his own enthusiasm, not just the naked facts, and really personalizes it in a way that reaches people not just intellectually, but emotionally, to really imbed the memory in students,” said Thorner.

A lifetime of service

In the classroom, back behind the podium, Schekman is dressed to the nines, wearing the same — or at least remarkably similar — pristine blue jacket as the one he wore at his press conference at which he accepted his lifetime parking pass from UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

Just like his work in the lab, his wardrobe is meticulously crafted and flawlessly executed. Schekman’s son Joel said his father goes out of his way to find “sock clips”, and Thorner added that he can hardly recall a day when Schekman did not look impeccable.

But Schekman is not a man of material. He uses his salary from the freshman seminars he teaches to fund frequent dinners with students, where they chat about class readings on insulin over Indian cuisine. He is also planning to use the $400,000 he received from the Nobel Prize to create an endowed chair in honor of his mother and sister, both of whom died of cancer, called the Esther and Wendy Schekman Chair in Basic Cancer Biology.

“Randy has committed himself to a lifetime of service and generosity. He’s bent over backwards to be of service to the campus and for the common good of society,” Thorner said. “That was the extra special aspect of his being recognized by the prize, because not only has he done great science, but he’s a great citizen.”

Virgie Hoban is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 03, 2014