Thomas Cech wins Nobel Prize while at MIT for BUSA lecture
By Annabelle Boyd
Shortly before Thomas R. Cech was to give yesterday's lecture for the Biology Undergraduate Student Association, the Nobel committee in Stockholm announced that he had won this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Cech will share the prize with Yale Professor Sidney Altman '60.
Cech, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, worked at MIT as a post-doctoral fellow under Professor Mary Lou Pardue before moving to his post in Colorado.
Cech was alone when he received the phone call from the Nobel committee at 9 am yesterday morning in his hotel room.
He is the winner of several major awards, including the prestigious Lasker Award for medical research, which he shared with MIT professor Phillip A. Sharp last year.
To acknowledge the prize, Cech held a 25 minute press conference at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research yesterday that started at noon. When asked by a reporter if the Nobel Prize would change his life, Cech replied, "I hope not." Another reporter asked if Cech had expected to win the prize. Cech answered, "I'd be home in Colorado if I knew I was going to get the call."
Because of the announcement,
Cech was forced to reschedule his lecture for BUSA from 4 pm to 2 pm. According to Biology Professor Graham C. Walker, "A lot of people might have cancelled the talk, but Tom just isn't like that."
Cech delivered an hour-long lecture on "RNA Enzymes and the Origin of Life" to an overflowing 10-250 hall, full of undergraduate and graduate students and members of the faculty. Directly after the lecture, Walker boarded a plane to return to Colorado to share his success with his family and the University of Colorado.
BUSA member Erica Wickstrom '90 introduced Cech as a
man who had faith in himself and in science, investigating what other scientists had put off to be the results of impurities or errors.
"I always enjoy talking here," he said with a laugh as he opened the lecture. The lanky Cech spoke about three topics, opening with a discussion of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which acts as a messenger within the cell. He also addressed the molecular origins of life and the structure of chromosomes, which contain the cell's hereditary information in the form of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
Cech won the prize for his observation that RNA could func-
tion as an enzyme and therefore speed up, or catalyze, chemical reactions. This had major implications for evolutionary theory, as it had previously been thought that DNA proteins were the only catalysts of chemical reactions.
Cech's lecture was the second annual lecture supported by MIT BUSA. More than a year ago, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded $1 million to MIT to stimulate undergraduate education in biology. The BUSA annual lecture is one of the activities financed by the Hughes grant. Last year, Nobel laureate Mike Brown spoke about his research.
(Editor's note: Tech staff writer David Rothstein contributed to this report.)