By Lisa Jarvis / Bloomberg Opinion
Science Twitter was bursting with joy yesterday with the news that Stanford University chemical biologist Carolyn Bertozzi had finally been recognized by the Nobel committee, one of three researchers to win the prize for chemistry.
And that joy wasn’t only about her important contributions to science. It was also because of Bertozzi’s incredible leadership in the scientific community. She’s been a mentor to a long and still-growing list of researchers who have gone on to their own successful careers. And she also hasn’t shied away from using her position to advocate for faster progress to diversify the ranks of science at all levels.
The prize went to “click chemistry,” a term might sound dauntingly wonky to the lay person. But click chemistry boils down to a fast and easy ways to snap together molecules. Bertozzi showed it was possible to develop such reactions so that they could happen inside living organisms without disturbing their everyday activities. In an early example of that technique that blew the scientific community’s mind, she put a fluorescent tag on sugars in a live zebrafish, allowing the molecules’ movement to be tracked over time. That work, longer term, could be critical to developing drugs and diagnostics. Bertozzi has started a number of biotech companies using these insights to develop everything from a cheap test for tuberculosis to novel cancer treatments.
Bertozzi came up in academia at a time when very few women were in organic chemistry. In fact, as an undergraduate at Harvard University, she was actively rebuffed when she tried to do research with certain professors who simply refused to work with women (mind you, this was in the 1980s, not the 1880s).
In 2016, she published a scathing editorial calling out the egregiously small percentage of female faculty in chemistry and demanding more be done to correct the issue. “I mean seriously, in an age when we fly by Pluto and send President Jimmy Carter’s metastatic melanoma into remission, how is it that we cannot figure out how to hire and promote female professors of chemistry?” she wrote.
Bertozzi has started to more often tell the story of what she described in a 2018 lecture at the University of York as the “weird discordance” between her career and personal life. As a lesbian, she constantly saw her rights under attack. During some of the highest points, professionally — publishing in prestigious journals, winning grants, being courted by the world’s most competitive institutions — she was grappling with a society that refused to recognize her relationship with her wife.
In the York lecture, she talks about the pain of people in her own California community voting against allowing her to marry her partner, or times when she worried her parental rights might not be affirmed by the courts.
“On the one hand, I would go to work, someone would give me a plaque, someone would give me a medal, I’d win an award, publish papers,” she said in the lecture. “And then I’d go home and people would say, ‘Actually, you’re garbage. You’re worthless. You’re not even good enough to be married.’”
In recent years, many people have challenged the relevance of the Nobel Prizes. Science, after all, is a team sport. Picking just three people to elevate to the rarified air of Nobel Laureate unfailingly means leaving out the contributions of many others in a field.
And the awards can seem hopelessly out of tune with society. Laureates have been almost exclusively white men, even when the judges could have recognized others.
I’m not ready to throw out the Nobels. They help draw the public in to the wonder of science, and remind people of its critical role in making the world a better place. Some have suggested they be refashioned to recognize teams rather than the people. I’d argue it’s the human stories — the setbacks, perseverance and breakthroughs — that help draw people in. But for too long, many aspiring scientists might not have recognized themselves in those stories.
At the time the Nobels were announced, the most recent tweet in Bertozzi’s feed was a response to a young scientist who had won a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health. The researcher was expressing gratitude to mentors, including Bertozzi, who welcomed an “outsider” and helped pave the way to a successful career.
Bertozzi wrote back: “Outsider no more!”
Neither is she.
Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, health care and the pharmaceutical industry. Previously, she was executive editor of Chemical & Engineering News.