It's not every assignment that hoists a lowly science writer to one degree of separation from both Barack Obama and George W. Bush in a single shot. But that was the byproduct of my reportage when I was gathering material for a story on the ascent of Stanford biochemist (and amateur pilot) Jim Spudich, PhD, to a coveted status among scientists: winner of the American equivalent of a Nobel Prize.
The Lasker Foundation, it was just announced, has selected Spudich as recipient of this year's Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for (as I wrote about this welcome, deserved, but never predictable event):
...his trail-blazing investigations of the molecular motors that drive our skeletal-muscle contractions and heartbeats, enable our cells to divide, and power patrolling immune cells through our tissues.
That's a lot. But it's not all Spudich has accomplished. Far from it. Among many other things, he played a key role in the birthing of Bio-X, Stanford's interdisciplinary research program created to foster collaborations among physical, biological, and computer scientists and engineers.
It was Spudich - along with then-Stanford physicist, current U.S. Secretary of Energy, and 1997 Nobelist Steve Chu, PhD - who in 1997 first approached then-Stanford provost and, later, Secretary of State Condi Rice, PhD, with the idea of actively encouraging cross-disciplinary collaborations of the kind that the two research heavyweights had recently engaged in, with great success. (Spudich served as the program's first director.)
I interviewed both Chu and Rice for this story. Bio-X was born largely because Rice trusted the two, she told me:
"When you're provost, you get all kinds of ideas from people needing funding for them," said Rice... "I'm not a scientist. So a big factor in my decisions about what to throw my weight behind was my confidence in the people proposing the ideas. Jim's a great basic scientist, a real innovator. And he's a wonderful teacher and mentor... He's the complete package."
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben