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Alumni Awarded Nobel Prizes

Smoot, Fire Receive Prizes For Research in Physics and Physiology

By Jihye Kim

Two MIT alumni have been awarded Nobel Prizes this year. Andrew Z. Fire PhD ’83 shared half of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Craig C. Mello from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and George F. Smoot ’66 shared his half of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics with John C. Mather at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Fire is now a professor in the Department of Pathology and Genetics at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Smoot is a professor of physics at Berkeley.

According to the Nobel Foundation Web site, both winners will receive 5 million Swedish kronor (roughly 700 thousand dollars) in a ceremony that will be held on Dec, 8, at the Aula Magna at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Fire obtained his PhD from MIT in 1983 primarily working with his adviser, Institute Professor Phillip A. Sharp. He continued his postdoctoral research at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Embryology that led to his joint discovery of the RNAi mechanism with Mello, as published in Nature Magazine in 1998. This new RNA process opened many doors for developmental gene regulation research, as it allowed scientists to test for the exact function of any gene in a cell.

“It’s a basic research tool with some windows into potential therapeutics,” Fire said, as reported by the MIT News Office.

Science Magazine distinguished this research as “Breakthrough of the Year” in 2002, and it remained on Science’s list of top 10 scientific advances in 2003 for it may facilitate a vital role in discovering more useful medical treatments.

Smoot, who attended MIT as both an undergraduate and graduate student, was recognized for research that confirmed the Big Bang Theory through the use of NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite. COBE measured tiny changes in the temperature of cosmic background radiations that resulted from residual heat left over by the initial Big Bang explosion 13.7 billion years ago.

As an MIT student, Smoot mostly conducted his particle reaction experiments in the Brookhaven National Lab. He worked closely with the late David H. Frisch PhD ’47 on high-energy physics, which helped him on expanding his knowledge in particle physics and allowed him to delve further into cosmology. Through Frisch, he was able to work with last year’s Physics Nobel Prize winner, Roy Glauber, at Harvard.

“At MIT, I learned to work hard, study carefully, do experiments, and consult people for ideas,” Smoot said of his “priceless yet costly” MIT education and research experiences. Smoot obtained his PhD from MIT in 1970 before leaving for the University of California, Berkeley to continue work on the origins of the universe.

Besides benefitting from the research opportunities available at MIT, these two alumni also gained valuable friendships during their stay here. Fire, who entered his PhD program as a 19-year-old, formed relationships with his fellow PhD colleagues as well as undergraduate students that he taught in genetics recitations.

“Sometimes I hung out with my undergraduate students, watching the pumpkin drop,” Fire commented. Fire also played the cello in the Symphony Orchestra and has fond memories of playing in a midnight concert in a frigid Building 7 just before Christmas.

Fire’s ambitions to become a professor and researcher were solidified through his teaching experience at MIT as a Teacher’s Assistant, he said. Not only did he relearn genetics in great detail, but he also had the chance to interact with students and faculty.

Javier Lopez-Molina G, a former undergraduate student in Fire’s lab at Stanford University, thinks very highly of Fire as a mentor. “Even back then he was a very busy guy, but I would meet with him in his office often to go over project ideas and even to help troubleshoot protocols,” Lopez-Molina said.

Similarly, Smoot had memorable experiences at MIT. As a resident of East Campus, he was an avid participant in East Campus Day and was involved in several hacks around campus, he said.

“We did the usual things like cementing crossed railroad rails in a dorm room or filling one with crumpled news papers after filling the refrigerator with Jell-O and once we built a makeshift dam and turned the showers into a swimming pool,” Smoot said of his college days. “But most of the time was spent studying and doing research.”

Smoot, along with another graduate student, even tricked his adviser Frisch by pretending that he had shaved off large amounts of the extremely costly osmium metal that they needed for some heavy nuclei research.

“It was just aluminum chips, but when Frisch saw the huge pile of silver chips and was told that we filed down this much of the osmium, he just put his hand over his heart,” Smoot said. “He laughed about it afterwards.”

According to the News Office, Smoot is also a distant relation of another famous MIT Smoot, who was rolled over the Harvard Bridge by his fraternity brothers, serving as a measurement tool to span the bridge’s distance.

Both Nobel-winning alumni remarked that their MIT experiences helped them tremendously in their respective paths in science because they were able to form lasting relationships with peers and faculty.