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Richard Axel is a science celebrity. He is brilliant, funny, and, oh yeah, he won a Nobel Prize. And I got to sit next to him at lunch the other day! He was in town to give a talk in my department. To give us grad students a chance to brush with greatness, we are allowed to have lunch with the invited speakers (woohoo, they let us out of lab! free food!). I find that many famous scientists (perhaps like famous celebrities? although I have yet to meet celebrities of the non-scientific persuasion) have quirky personalities. And Dr. Axel is no exception. He is larger than life, quite a tall man, and incessantly chews nicorette gum (this was confirmed by my boyfriend: during his interview for grad school at Columbia years ago Dr. Axel was also chewing said gum).

As I’ve said, he is an extremely intelligent man, and he has formed many ideas about the field of neuroscience, on which he does his research. He studies the olfactory system in particular (and was awarded the Nobel Prize with Linda Buck for discovering odorant receptors – the protein structures in your nose that detect smells). One student in the room asked him whether he thought that humans have pheromones – chemicals that animals use to communicate with each other about food, sex, predators. The behaviors that pheromones trigger are often innate, hard-wired, instinctual responses since they are about things essential to live and reproduce (eating, mating, avoiding being eaten…), as opposed to learned behaviors. Pheromones are detected much in the same way as smells, using the vomeronasal organ which is also in the nose, although in humans the vomeronasal organ is pathetic and wimpy and its function in humans is very controversial. Read the rest of this entry »

Peter Agre's Presidential Address at AAAS

Peter Agre, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, opened the 2010 annual AAAS meeting with a poignant, memorable speech.  Standing at the podium in front of a screen displaying this year’s theme, “Bridging Science and Society”, Agre took the audience through a personal narrative of his life as a scientist, beginning with his early inspiration from his father, a chemist, through his discovery of aquaporins which won him a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2003.   Relating a story about drawing a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up during a class exercise (a chemist of course), he recalls looking over to his neighbor drawing a picture of himself as a burglar.  Wryly Agre quipped, “I always wondered whether he grew up to be a lobbyist.”

He also encouraged the undergraduate and high school students in the audience to get involved in research opportunities.  This, as well as some of his slides, seemed vaguely familiar as I flashed back to the other time I’ve heard Agre speak, my senior year of college at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting a year after he’d won his Nobel Prize.  When he later showed a picture of his lab on the day that he got that once-in-a-lifetime phone call from Oslo (unless you’re John Bardeen, Linus Pauling, Marie Curie, or Fred Sanger), I realized that he didn’t look the same as that day six years ago when I sat in the audience, he’d had a quite impressive gray mustache that’s now been replaced by a slick, clean-shaven look, perhaps in keeping with his ever-growing international reputation. Read the rest of this entry »

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