Tanushri Shah

October 9, 2019

A Look at Past Cornell-Affiliated Nobel Prize Laureates: How their Legacy will Inspire Generations of Scientists to Come

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In light of the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Laureates, we highlighted 3 of the 50 Cornell faculty and alumni, past and present, who have been awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Physiology and Medicine.


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Prof. Roald Hoffmann, chemistry, is the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Emeritus and has been part of the Cornell faculty since 1965. Hoffmann has researched a variety of sub-fields within chemistry, including organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry and solid state chemistry.

Hoffmann shared the Nobel Prize with Kenichi Fukui in 1981 for “their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions.” However, Hoffmann related mixed feelings regarding the Nobel Prize: pleasure at the recognition, but also sadness that his colleague R.B. Woodward did not live to receive it with him. He also described the jealousy of peers and the pressure of being watched in the future.

“If everyone around you asks you what are going to do next, you begin to think about that and that inhibits creativity,” Hoffman said.

However, winning the Nobel Prize didn’t change his focus on research and teaching, including teaching undergraduates.

“I remained a scientist and I remained teaching Introduction to Chemistry, though I haven’t done it for 10 years now because I’m retired, ” Hoffman said.

Hoffmann has also been heavily involved in the humanities throughout his life, writing plays, books and poetry. Hoffmann has always believed strongly in the importance of communicating science to the public, saying that scientists should “take every opportunity to speak to the general public.”

When asked what advice he had for students interested in a future in research, Hoffmann suggested getting research experience in college.

“The research experience allows you to move from very large classes […] to the research group and the research group meetings which are usually smaller and which are more of a scientific family,” Hoffman said.


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While many scientists began their careers with a deep passion for science, Dr. Varmus’ story was more complex. Varmus went through high school hating science.

“[I] grew up in pleasant circumstances on Long Island where my major interests in life were tennis and fiction, not science. Science teachers … were pretty appalling,” Varmus said in a lecture on May 2nd.

While Varmus started as a physician, his career changed course because of his work as a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service of the NIH.

“That experience at NIH, my first serious exposure to laboratory life and at the advanced age of 28, determined the course of my career,” Varmus wrote in an email to The Sun.

After Dr. Varmus won the 1989 Nobel Prize for his research partnership with J. Michael Bishop studying oncogenesis [becoming cancerous] in retroviruses, Varmus pursued leadership opportunities in addition to research.

“I took advantage of my new public platform to get engaged in the leadership of institutions that I admire, hoping to make changes that I thought were important,” Varmus said.

Despite his numerous leadership positions, including seven years as the director of the NIH, 10 years as President of Memorial Sloan Kettering and five years as the director of the National Cancer Institute, Varmus continued his research.

Varmus is now the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical School, and is studying the “molecular mechanisms of oncogenesis.”


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Barbara McClintock M.S. ’25, PhD ’27, was a pioneering researcher in cytogenetics, the study of the structure of DNA within a cell nucleus. Her discoveries transformed the field of genetics, and while she passed away in 1992, her memory lives on.

McClintock studied the chromosome structure inside maize cells, and discovered what were later called “jumping genes,” or components that moved between chromosomes. Decades passed before her work was recognized, because her research did not align with conventional wisdom in science before the discovery of DNA.

“Previously, people thought that each chromosome is a unique structure/entity, containing its own genetic materials,”  Prof. Jun ‘Kelly’ Liu, molecular biology and genetics, wrote in an email.  “This is also the reason why it took people many years to accept the mobile genetic element concept that she proposed.”

After other scientists confirmed her theories, McClintock won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for the discovery that she made many decades earlier, making her the only Cornell-affiliated woman to date to win a Nobel Prize in science.  While a she was a Cornell alumna, McClintock did not become a Cornell faculty member because the university refused to  hire a female professor.

Liu reflected on the mixed Cornell’s mixed legacy related to McClintock in an email with the Sun: “It’s really inspiring to have a woman scientist win the Nobel Prize. She didn’t get hired as a professor at Cornell even with all her groundbreaking work, all because she was a woman.”

While other women have since won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine, chemistry and physics, women remain underrepresented among science laureates. Liu has some suggestions for addressing this concern.

“We need more women to be in faculty positions so that they can serve as role models to students who are considering a career in the sciences,” Liu said.

Anil Oza ’22 contributed to reporting in this article.