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  • Writer's pictureMarkie Miller

Nobel Prizes

Early October is announcement time for the Nobel prize winners in physiology and medicine, physics, chemistry and literature administered by, and winners selected by, the Royal Swedish Academies. Funding for the awards comes from the estate of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite – a combination of nitroglycerin and Kieselguhr stable enough to be handled. Nobel became wealthy from the various wars of the mid-to late 19th century, developing a reputation for killing. As a result of a faulty obituary about him (‘the news of my death is quite exaggerated’) he determined to give all of his wealth to the prizes that were named in his honor. All the Swedish Nobel awards are presented in the city hall in Stockholm on December 10, Nobel’s birthday. The Nobel Peace Prize was established by Nobel too, and is a Norwegian award given later in Oslo,. The Norwegian Parliament governs the rules for, and picks its winners.

What I think is as important about Jennifer Doudna, the Berkeley professor that won the prize in chemistry this year – aside from the fact that her discovery was brilliant, important and potentially of huge commercial value – is that she is another graduate of a private liberal arts college, Pomona College. Nobel laureates that studied as undergraduates at small colleges far outnumber – in the percent of the awards – major university chemistry department alumni. John Fenn, Nobel 2002, was an alumnus of Berea College (in Berea Kentucky) – Fenn’s discovery and development of electrospray ionization led to the mass spectrometer. Without Fenn there would be no CSI. F. Sherwood Rowland, Nobel 1995 was a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware Ohio. Professor Rowland’s discovery, with Mario Molina at the University of California, Irvine, that the decomposition of ozone in the upper atmosphere was caused by the photodecomposition of freons started what became the banning of the freons because of their causing some climate change. William Moerner, now at Stanford, an alumnus of Oberlin won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2014 for the development of super-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy. K. Barry Sharpless, Nobel prize 2001, is an alumnus of Dartmouth College. Sharpless took his Ph. D. at Stanford with Eugene E. van Tamelen, Hope College, (1944). Richard Smalley, Nobel 1996, is also an alumnus of Hope– Smalley’s award was for the discovery of fullerenes. In fairness Smalley transferred to the University of Michigan as a junior. If one goes back even further, Thomas Cech, Nobel laureate, 1989, was awarded ‘for the discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA. Cech (Colorado) is a graduate of Grinnell (Iowa) College. Rumor has it that Grinnell took the advice of Horace Greeley, who he knew, and went west to start Grinnell College naming the town for himself along the way. Charles Peterson, Nobel, 1987, was a graduate of the University of Dayton. Donald Cram, Nobel, 1987, was a graduate of Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fl,. These awards were for the discovery and development of certain ion collecting catalysts called ‘crown ethers’. Paul J. Flory, Nobel 1974, was a graduate of Manchester College in Manchester, Indiana. Professor Flory was the father of molecular polymer chemistry and wrote one of the most significant chemistry books in history.

Pomona College has another important Hope connection. It was the undergraduate alma mater of Helen Brockmeier, Dick Brockmeier’s wife. Dick, the late professor of physics at Hope, and I spent most of August, 1967 working on a proposal to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that, when funded that December, brought the largest outside grant Hope had received up to that time. Dick’s idea on which the proposal focused was that all science undergraduates should build their studies on strong backgrounds in physics, organic chemistry and physical chemistry and then work on the essential problems of life. (Oh had viruses been part of what we thought about then, we might not have been in the circumstances as a Country we now are,) The general sense of the Sloan Program at Hope was that students would be better prepared to study life’s molecular mysteries if they learned basic principles and tools from physics and math that they were able to apply to the more complex regimes of chemistry then biology.

I left small college teaching before the Sloan ideas took hold, but former Hope Professor Michael P. Doyle told me “The Sloan Curriculum at Hope condensed introductory materials into one semester, focusing only on the essentials. Students entered science and math topics early that were more interesting and relevant to their careers, whether science or medicine. The Hope program initiated an early entry to topical science starting organic chemistry in the freshman year because Hope’s Sloan curriculum recognized that students entering college for the first time needed a semester to become adjusted to the differences in education experienced in high school. Today the Hope model is practiced at the University of Maryland, University of Wisconsin, many California schools and many other colleges and universities.”

Dick Brockmeier’s vision carried its impact in the sciences well beyond the shores of Lake Michigan. Even if there is never another Nobel Prize in the sciences to alumni of smaller colleges, these smaller schools have been exceedingly important in feeding young persons that excel into their chosen scientific professions. In the Midwest, the small colleges in the states of Ohio and Michigan have produced more Nobel laureates than all the major universities in the States combined. Jennifer Doudna’s Nobel prize is just another in a long list, and one given to a scientist whose research was embodied in what Dick Brockmeier envisioned in the 1960’s.

Professor Neckers is McMaster Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) at Bowling Green State University, an organic chemist and photochemical scientist who taught at Hope College from 1964-71.

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