Intimate Gathering Introduces BSF to Northern Californians
In the collegiate ambiance of the Stanford University Faculty Club, prominent academics, business leaders, philanthropists and BSF-funded scientists mingled while they enjoyed refreshments and the opportunity to discuss the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF). Harry Saal chaired the event in partnership with the Honorable Andy David, Consul General of Israel for the Pacific Northwest. Michael Levitt, Stanford professor of Structural Biology, BSF-funded scientist and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, was the featured speaker.
Enjoying the reception are Lorry Lokey with Harry Saal, who served as event chair
Honorable Andy David, Consul General of Israel for the Pacific Northwest, introducing Professor Levitt
Harry Saal previously served as a board member of the American Friends of the BSF. In his welcoming remarks he shared that in any given year, there were some 400 U.S. researchers benefitting from BSF grants at 150 institutions in 37 states. Of all the states, California receives the largest share of funding.
Said Andy David, “What makes the BSF so special is that for funds invested in research, we realize results that are many times higher than our investment. Science collaboration takes longer to come to fruition than other interactions between Israelis and their counterparts in the United States. Right now there is a significant gap between the number of qualified research proposals and the funding available – these projects, if they were funded and carried out, could change the world in significant ways.”
Introducing Professor Levitt, David told the audience that Levitt is one of the 45 Nobel Laureates whose research was partially funded by the BSF. Levitt shared his personal journey that began with his boyhood love of science and grew from reading Scientific America when a teen.
He frankly loves science and believes that good basic science relies on serendipity. He observed that a scientist often does not know where the experiments will lead and that at times, basic science doesn’t make sense initially.
Another early influence was the John Kendrew BBC 1964 television series called The Thread of Life. Kendrew had received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1962 for determining the structure of myoglobin using X-ray crystallography. What Levitt learned got him so excited about molecular biology that he was determined to do his PhD at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge. Initially, the Council turned Levitt down, but that didn't stop Levitt. He described the tactics he took to keep on getting Kendrick's attention. His perseverance worked, and he eventually received a placement on the team.
Levitt had to wait one year to work with the Council, but he made the most of his time by doing research in Israel during that year. He studied in the laboratory of Shneior Lifson, PhD, at the Weizmann Institute, where he was immediately plunged into the relatively new field of computational biology (a mix of biology and computers).
Michael Levitt, Stanford professor of Structural Biology, BSF-funded scientist and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, was the event’s featured speaker
In his early work, Levitt went on to pioneer computational structural biology, which helped to predict molecular structures, compute structural changes, refine experimental structure, model enzyme catalysis and classify protein structures.
He noted that cells function because of where the molecules of life are located. These macromolecules, all made from proteins, form different structures that give them different functions, akin to a fork and spoon. These utensils are both made of metal, but they have different functions because of their shapes. The rigorous way to intervene in a living organism is to first learn about these three-dimensional structures. He showed movies of molecular dynamics simulations of biological processes, which provide a computerized description of the events that actually occur in nature.
Levitt's work focuses on theoretical, computer-aided analysis of protein, DNA and RNA molecules responsible for life at its most fundamental level. Delineating the precise molecular structures of biological molecules is a necessary first step in understanding how they work and in designing drugs to alter their function. Now the holder of the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professorship in Cancer Research at Stanford's School of Medicine, Levitt re-purposed his early work. His basic research led to practical methods for the use of antibodies that are key for modern anticancer therapy, such as the drug Avastin and Herceptin.
He has this advice for young researchers – be passionate, be persistent, believe in yourself and be kind and good. He told the group gathered at the Stanford Faculty Club that more exciting for him than actually going to Sweden to accept his Nobel prize was the day he went down to the field during a Stanford football game and, after an announcement that he was the next Nobel Laureate, hearing the 50,000 in the stands shout, “Nobel prize, Nobel prize.”
Said Levitt, “I am thankful to the BSF. Their support of my work and my other research colleagues led to the publication of many important papers, the outcomes of which formed the basis of research which led to my consideration by the Nobel committee.”