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Movers & Shakers: Eyes on the Prize

Written by Leslie Katz | Illustrations by Olivia Wise

With the Nobel awards ceremony taking place on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896, we recognize five great thinkers with Bay Area ties for recent honors and achievements in their fields.

Guido W. Imbens

Guido W. Imbens

When he saw a call from Sweden on his phone, the Stanford University business school economist thought, “Either this is a very elaborate prank, or this is serious.” Chuckling in an online interview presented by Stanford, the Dutch-American applied econometrics professor, 58, was pleased to win part of the 2021 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, sharing honors with Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The two were recognized for their “methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.” More plainly, in trying to determine the effectiveness of basic income, they surveyed lottery winners who were steadily receiving money, comparing their experiences with other lottery players who lost. Even though Imbens said social scientists do not perform experiments the same way medical doctors do, his wife Susan Athey, also a Stanford economist, said of her husband, “He’ll keep pushing until he really understands it well enough that the math just sings to the ideas and the ideas sing to the math.”

Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna

The 2021 Alma Dea Morani Renaissance Woman Award, an honor for doctors and scientists who have “pivotally advanced the future,” is the latest of numerous accolades given to the UC Berkeley professor of biochemistry and molecular biology who, with French researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier, won a 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing a new technology for editing genetic material. With Samuel Sternberg, Doudna, 57, is the coauthor of the 2017 book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, and is founder of Innovative Genomics Institute, an organization with a mission to treat disease, end hunger and educate the public about the myriad applications of her academic work. (Walter Isaacson’s 2021 biography of Doudna, The Code Breaker, also hit number one on the New York Times Best Sellers list.) On the topic of creating “designer” people, she said in a TED Talk, “Genome engineered humans are not with us yet, but this is no longer science fiction. This puts in front of all of us a huge responsibility to consider carefully both the unintended consequences as well as the intended impacts of a scientific breakthrough.”

David Julius

David Julius

Chili peppers and mint play a role in discoveries made by the University of California, San Francisco, scientist who, upon winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology, told colleagues in an UCSF video that the “most beautiful” experiments of his career were ones he conducted as a graduate student because, he said, “I did them with my own hands.” The work on pain sensation — using capsaicin, the pungent element in chilis, and menthol, the cooling agent in mint — that earned him the Nobel, which he shares with Scripps Research biologist and neuroscientist Ardem Patapoutian, represents “a major breakthrough in how we understand human perception … holding immense promise for patients,” said Dr. Michael V. Drake, current UC president. Julius, 66, a New York native who earned a graduate degree at UC Berkeley, did postdoctoral work at Columbia University and got his bachelor’s degree in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to his UCSF bio, his group’s studies are “helping to lay a foundation for the discovery and development of novel analgesic drugs.”

David Card

David Card

The University of California, Berkeley, labor economist shares the 2021 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his ongoing studies that have “challenged orthodoxy and dramatically shifted understanding of inequality and the social and economic forces that impact low-wage workers.” Card, 65, a native of Ontario, Canada, who grew up on a dairy farm, initially was a physics major. In an interview shared by UC Berkeley, he said he first became interested in economics when he picked up his girlfriend’s introductory textbook and found the “interesting” statement that explained what he had personally witnessed, that “just because it’s a good crop one year, it doesn’t mean that the farmer is going to be richer.” Although his contributions to his field reflect changing ideas, and contemporary textbooks no longer denigrate minimum wage and rent control as they did 40 years ago, he maintains that people in power continue to ascribe to old theories. In academia today, he added, “You’re really hoping to influence the next generation.”

David Card

Louise Glück

The Yale University writer-in-residence and New York-born poet was a visiting professor at Stanford University’s creative writing program in October 2020 when she won the Nobel Prize in literature. Other honors bestowed upon Glück, 78, whose last name is pronounced “glick,” include the Pulitzer Prize (for 1992’s The Wild Iris, a poetry collection in which flowers are metaphors for humans’ emotional experiences) and the National Book Award. Her newest volume, Winter Recipes from the Collective: Poems, was published in October. In a podcast produced by the American Academy of Achievement, the poet laureate of the United States from 2003–04 said: “I write to discover meaning. I want experience to mean something. It’s less a matter of who I am than that idea that nothing should be wasted. … Writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance, too: bad luck, loss, pain. If you make something out of it, then you’ve no longer been bested by these events.”

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