Ask Eric Wieschaus, professor of molecular biology, what it was like to win the Nobel Prize in medicine and you get a remarkably measured response.
“It was a big surprise. You get the call, and you're famous for about two days,” he explains. “Then the world goes on, and you go back to all the nice things in your regular life — teaching, lab work, family.”
It isn't that Wieschaus didn't enjoy winning the award, which was presented in honor of his pioneering work on the way genes in the fruit fly determine how body parts are formed. Wieschaus recalls his time in Stockholm where he received the Nobel Prize as “very special,” a whirlwind of ceremonies and events that he was happy to share with his family.
If you're looking for real excitement from Wieschaus, however, you have to ask him about his work. “Things that are alive are just so amazing,” he says. “The fact that you can see these processes happening before your eyes is so fascinating.”
That fascination began in high school during biology lab, when Wieschaus peered into a microscope and watched frog eggs split and develop into embryos. “It was remarkable to me that I could watch this happening,” he recalls. “It raised all sorts of questions that I wanted to answer.”
The drive to answer those questions still motivates Wieschaus. In his lab, he pursues the mystery of how life is formed, how it develops and how it passes itself along. Working one-on-one with students in the Department of Molecular Biology, he serves as a mentor for juniors and seniors in the program.
Students who are not part of the molecular biology program also benefit from having a Nobel laureate in their midst. As co-teacher of the course “Molecular Biology 101: From DNA to Human Complexity,” Wieschaus introduces genetics to students from all over campus. He feels this course is vital. “So many important decisions in today’s world deal with issues that have a basis in science,” he explains. “Everyone in the country needs to have a basic understanding of science.”
He hopes his Molecular Biology 101 students will also gain an appreciation for the miracles they witness in the lab. “The things that we know about DNA are one of the great accomplishments of the past century,” said Wieschaus. “Even beyond the social issues, the pure beauty of scientific understanding is amazing.”