Former University professor James Rothman won the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday along with Stanford biochemistry professor Thomas Sudhof and University of California, Berkeley biologist Randy Schekman. Rothman, Sudhof and Schekman’s contributions advanced scientific understanding of the transportation systems within cells.
Rothman attended Yale University as an undergraduate and majored in physics, graduating in 1971.
“My father was a small-town doctor, and I think he was really worried that there were no jobs for physicists. You really ought to take a biology course to become a doctor, he said to me,” Rothman said.
However, Rothman cited Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein and other famous physicists of his youth as his inspiration for choosing to major in physics, a field distinct from his career in biochemistry.
“Physicists are smart. Chemists are acceptable. Biologists are stupid,” Rothman explained of his early views of the sciences.
Rothman said that each year he and his college roommates reunite and remind each other of what they were like a couple of decades ago.
“One of my friends described me as Buddha sitting on the floor with my legs crossed, and Buddha was a very large man, which I am as well,” Rothman said.
Rothman described himself as the mixture of a nerd and a “goof-off.”
“I was a physics major, and I was pretty good at it. I had wonderful grades my freshman year, and I discovered marijuana my second term,” Rothman said.
He went on to explain that while he always received excellent grades, he was not always the best student.
“I goofed off a lot and had a good time. But, by the time I was a senior, I was reformed and a dedicated scientist,” Rothman said.
After graduating from Yale, Rothman obtained his Ph.D. in biological chemistry from Harvard University in 1976 and completed his post-doctoral training at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978, according to a Nobel Foundation press release. He devoted much of his subsequent career to biochemistry at a variety of institutions.
Following his post-doctoral training, Rothman worked at Stanford’s Department of Biochemistry for three years. He then came to the University, where he worked from 1988 to 1991, before moving on to work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Rothman founded the Department in Cellular Biochemistry and Biophysics at Sloan-Kettering in 1991 and chaired the department until 2003. Among the people he considers to have been his mentors are Harvard’s Eugene Kennedy, who helped him explore the lipid bilayer of cell membranes, and MIT adviser Harvey Lodish, who taught Rothman the inner workings of cell-free systems.
Kennedy died in 2011. Lodish said he was traveling and was not available to comment for this article.
Rothman held a number of titles within the Sloan-Kettering Institute and the science departments of Columbia University. He focused his research largely on the function of vesicles — tiny, sac-like structures that serve as transportation mechanisms within cells.
Two years after returning to Yale’s department of cell biology, Rothman won the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience in 2010 with scientific work that linked him definitively to Thomas Sudhof, another winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize, by illustrating the critical role of neurotransmitters in vesicle function.
Over the course of his career, Rothman continued to explore the structure and configuration of the proteins that facilitate vesicle-target fusion.
According to the Nobel Prize Foundation’s webpage, Rothman’s research on yeast proteins aligned with results that Schekman had reached in his exploration of mammals. Their results collectively produced a ground-breaking new map of the cell’s transport mechanisms.
Rothman explained that he intends to pursue and continue the research he is working on now. He currently chairs the cell biology department at Yale and leads a research lab, where he plans to continue his work.
“I have a wonderful research lab, and I am privileged to have at least 20 young, able students and post-doctoral fellows and a couple bright undergraduates,” he explained.
One goal that Rothman has for his future research is to understand how neurotransmitters are released.
“The message is that you can get a Nobel prize for working on a problem, but it doesn’t mean the problem is completely solved,” he said.