Randy Schekman is a Nobel Prize-winning American cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley and once had thoughts of running away from home when his savings for a microscope were spent on household groceries. An exclusive interview with Schekman finds out more about his childhood and university years and his lifelong fascination with microbiology.
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
A toy microscope and pond scum, ignited a spark in Randy Schekman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2013, for his work in discovering how cells transport and secrete proteins. Those proteins are much-needed molecules such as hormones, digestive enzymes and neurotransmitters. Schekman discovered a set of genes required for transporting the proteins through and out of the cell in the small packages, called vesicles. Schekman shared the prize with James Rothman of Yale University and Thomas Südhof of Stanford University.
Schekman, 69, was born in St Paul, Minnesota, and moved to the greater LA area when he was 10. When he was 11, he went to a local river bend, collected a jar of pond scum, brought it home, place a drop of it on a glass slide and analysed it under the lens of a toy microscope. He was intrigued by the rich world of microorganisms he observed, and became fascinated with how the microorganisms survived, grew and divide.
In seventh grade, Schekman attended his school’s science fair, which was an exhibition of various projects assembled by students from the science classes, a recognition of efforts. The projects were usually trivial, such as building a volcano, creating fake lava, etc. Schekman remembers being captivated by the projects at the fair, and he thinks this might have been the single event in his youth that fixed his path in science. He said the event “resonated somehow in a way that nothing else in my experience in school ever had.” In the eighth-grade fair, he started looking at the type of microorganisms present in pond scum, simple observations of paramecia and rotifers, and submitted the project. Even though he did not receive recognition for the work, it got him hooked into the annual science fair.
One evening, he was reporting his observations from his toy microscope, at dinner as usual. His father expressed skepticism about the plastic toy microscope. So, at that moment, Schekman resolved to save a hundred dollars, which was a lot of money in the 1960s. He babysat, mowed lawns, delivered newspapers, so he could earn enough to buy himself a student professional microscope. However, the excitement was short-lived as his mother took his savings to buy groceries. Schekman never quite reached the hundred-dollar mark he envisioned. One Saturday after mowing the lawn, he cycled to the local police station and told the duty officer that he was planning to run away from home because his mother was stealing his money, leaving him unable to buy his microscope. The police officer proceeded to call up Schekman’s father, who arrived at the scene to pick him up. That same afternoon in 1963, father and son went to a pawnshop, paid a hundred dollars for a microscope. It became his pride and joy through his childhood and high school.
In ninth grade, a friend of his parents, visited their house, and took an interest in Schekman’s microbial experiments. She worked in a hospital and provided him with basic ingredients for growing a bacteria culture at home – petri plates, flasks, and agar. The agar was mixed with unwanted human blood from the hospital, which provided a rich source of nutrients for bacteria growth. What was slightly disturbing was Schekman used his mother’s pressure cooker to melt the agar and stored the human blood agar medium in her refrigerator. In the ninth-grade science fair, he got a little more sophisticated and tried to isolate an antibiotic from a bacterium.
It was also in ninth grade, before Schekman entered high school, that his future biology teacher, Jack Hoskins, stood in front of Schekman’s project at the county science fair and introduced himself. Even though Hoskins' knowledge on experimental science was limited as he was a botanist, he was a wonderful support and provided encouragement to him throughout high school. They remained in contact after Schekman’s graduation and even visited him at his Berkeley laboratory. On the morning of the Nobel Prize announcement, Hoskins sent a congratulatory email to Schekman, expressing his delight in living to see this day. Hoskins joked that Schekman has now replaced Tiger Woods as the most famous graduate of Western High School.
Schekman said he did not learn much about doing science, until he enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles. He took freshman chemistry and did well enough to be admitted to honours class, which was taught by Willard Libby, a Nobel Laureate, known for creating radiocarbon dating. The course required that every student be assigned to work in a chemistry laboratory for the term. He was assigned to the lab of Michael Konrad and studied DNA replication. Specifically, he had to hydrolyse a sample of DNA and determine the base composition by chromatographic separation and UV absorption. After his first year at university, his initial intention of studying medicine waned, and soon switched to molecular biology as he was sure he wanted to be a scientist.
Schekman took this interest in the enzymology of DNA replication, to graduate school at Stanford, where he was fortunate to work in the lab of one of the greatest biochemist of the 20th century, Arthur Kornberg. He received his PhD in biochemistry and went on to a postdoctoral position with S J Singer at the University of California, San Diego, where he worked on cellular membranes.
With the skills and training equipped at Stanford at UC San Diego, the young Schekman embarked on a new area of exploration. He started his own laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, with no experience in studying yeast. At Berkeley, he developed a genetic and biochemical approach to the study of eukaryotic membrane traffic. Specifically, he studied yeast cells with defective transport systems. He elucidated the genes that regulate protein flow within a cell and later studies showed that higher organisms also have similar cellular traffic-control systems. This brought new understanding to fundamental cell biology, and eventually winning him the Nobel Prize in 2013.
As a young scientist
Schekman tells young scientists that they will probably face tough challenges, a lot of naysayers and unsuccessful experiments. He recalls a time when he first started his lab and wrote to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a grant, which was rejected for being an ill-prepared project without any preliminary data. It dealt a crushing blow to him. But he overcame it.
“You have to have the courage of your convictions. You must be willing to take risks. If you are not willing to be a gambler in science, you probably won’t achieve much,” says Schekman.
He shares that his motivation to go to work is “The excitement of new possibilities”.
6 questions with Randy Schekman
What is your favourite type of cell to look under a microscope?
What would you be doing if you weren't a scientist?
I would probably do classical music. Or, I might end up going to medical school.
What has the Nobel allowed you to do that you'd not be able to do otherwise?
It introduces me to more people, interesting people of diverse backgrounds.
I enjoy it, but it takes time away from science and family.
What are your hobbies?
I exercise a lot to keep in shape. I love to run and going on strenuous hikes.
What is your favourite book, and why?
One of my favourite books is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jered Diamond, it is about the history of human civilization.
Another is American Prometheus written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, which is a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who worked on the Manhattan Project in World War II. He was also a brilliant physicist at the University of California, Berkeley.
More recently, I read this book, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. It’s a fascinating read.
One word to describe the way science is right now.
This interview was conducted by Lim Guan Yu at the Global Young Scientists Summit 2018. Organised by the National Research Foundation Singapore, the Global Young Scientists Summit was started in 2013 with the objective of exciting and engaging young scientists to pursue their scientific dreams through close interactions with distinguished scientists and researchers, and with peers.