Education

Nobel 'aura' follows Duke prof after win

Posted January 12, 2015 9:37 a.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2015 9:38 a.m. EST

— Three years after taking home the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Duke University professor Dr. Robert Lefkowitz is still reaping the benefits of his award-winning research.

During the 10-day celebration in Sweden to honor Nobel winners, Lefkowitz said he felt like "the ultimate celebrity."

"You're recognized on the street. Your picture is on the front page of the paper. You are on prime time TV many nights," he said.

Lefkowitz, along with a former fellow of his, Brian Kobilka, proved the existence of cell receptors and identified how they worked. They split a $1.2 million award.

Their research has had a major impact on the evolution of drugs like antihistamines, ulcer drugs and drugs used for depression and beta blockers.

"Probably about half of all the prescription drug sales in the world today are of drugs that target these receptors that I'm talking about and that we discovered," Lefkowitz said.

The impact of his work is felt around the work of medicine, and he has seen his profile rise from that of a local professor to worldwide recognition.

"There is an aura around the prize which I had not fully appreciated," Lefkowitz said. "As soon as people hear that you're a Nobel laureate, I mean everything changes.  It's pretty incredible."

Despite his considerable accomplishments, Lefkowitz still has a simple professional goal. 

"I've always thought that the true mark of distinction in any hierarchy is having your own toilet," he said from his Durham office.

"I thought maybe when I won the prize, I'd get my own little bathroom over here. But I haven't really pushed it."

He may not have his own bathroom in Lefkoville, but he does have a Duke basketball jersey hanging from the rafters. It's his second most prized momento, given to him by none other than Coach K.

He clearly remembers the cheers of the Cameron Crazies. 

"They were chanting something in unison, and I couldn't quite make it out what it was. Then it came into focus. They were chanting, 'He's so smart, he's so smart.' That was a real high."

All those plaudits have not gone to his head, assistant Donna Addison said.

"He hasn't changed a bit. He's just as humble as ever," she said.