Three days after winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, neuroscientist Thomas Südhof, MD, flew back to Stanford late last week to a hero’s welcome, with cheers and applause from about 60 fellow scientists, including many of his postdocs and graduate students who gathered outside his office. Südhof entered on a plastic red carpet into a hallway adorned with fuchsia streamers and red and yellow balloons. He surveyed the cheering crowd, speechless.
“Can I go to work now?” he said, grinning.
But his lab mates at the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building were not about to let him off that easily. There were champagne toasts in plastic cups, cameras flashing and postdocs and grad students angling to get a shot of themselves with their now-famous mentor. They had gone to some lengths for the celebration, even using red balloons on a whiteboard to create a mock presynaptic terminal, part of the brain’s communication system and the focus of Südhof's award-winning research.
Südhof, a neuroscientist and professor of molecular and cellular physiology, had been on the road to a conference in a small hilltop town in Spain Oct. 7 when he first heard the news of the award from the Nobel’s communications officer. He had flown in the night before to Madrid and had been driving for more than four hours, in search of the town of Baeza, where he was due to deliver a lecture that afternoon on the synapses in the brain, which help neurons communicate the messages that underlie our thoughts, emotions and activities.
“I was exhausted and it was a little frustrating because Google Maps said it would take three hours, and I had been driving four hours already, so I thought it was my colleague calling asking me where I was.” But when the Swedish-accented voice of Adam Smith delivered the Nobel news, “It wasn’t exactly something I expected,” he told the crowd.
His lab members draped him in a red feather boa and gold paper crown and presented him with giant red cup and a bottle of Dom Pérignon. They called him a “superstar.”
“I’m just the administrator,” he said. “You guys are the superstars.”
Later that afternoon, Südhof was feted by several hundred colleagues who gathered in the Beckman Center lobby on the med school campus in his honor. His colleague Brian Kobilka, MD, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, warned him about the after-effects of Nobel-hood.
“From the very first day, my e-mail hit above 1,000 and I’ve never caught up since,” Kobilka said. “Unfortunately I have the compulsion to answer.”
Then there were the autograph seekers everywhere, trailing his limo in Sweden and besieging him with phone and email requests. One graduate student sent him a lumpy Fed-Ex envelope with two baseballs, asking him to autograph them, though Kobilka knows nothing about the sport. “I signed them and sent them back,” he shrugged.
“It’s going to be an amazing, crazy experience,” Kobilka told Südhof. “You deserve it. It might throw you off balance for a while, but I’m confident it won’t be for long.”
Previously: For award-winning scientist, a finished experiment is like a piece of completed art, The lure of research: How Nobel winner Thomas Südhof came to work in the basic sciences, Celebrate good (Nobel) times – come on!, Discussing the brain in Spain: Nobel Laureate Thomas Südhof addresses the media, Stanford’s Thomas Südhof wins 2013 Nobel Prize in MedicineStanford’s Thomas Südhof wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Stanford’s Brian Kobilka wins 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Photo by Nathan Huang