Two queer scientists win Nobel prizes

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday October 12, 2022
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Stanford University chemistry Professor Carolyn Bertozzi sits at her desk at Stanford on October 5, the day she was co-awarded the prize in chemistry. Photo: Courtesy Andrew Brodhead/Stanford University
Stanford University chemistry Professor Carolyn Bertozzi sits at her desk at Stanford on October 5, the day she was co-awarded the prize in chemistry. Photo: Courtesy Andrew Brodhead/Stanford University

Two queer scientists, Carolyn Bertozzi and Svante Pääbo, were awarded Nobel prizes for their scientific discoveries.

Swedish geneticist Pääbo, a 67-year-old bisexual man, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine "for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution" and how it impacts humans today, announced Professor Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Assembly October 3.

Some of Pääbo's work in the field was accelerated while he was a postdoctoral fellow at the UC Berkeley from 1987 to 1990.

Two days later, Perlmann announced Stanford University chemistry professor Bertozzi, a 56-year-old lesbian, was one of three chemists awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Bertozzi shares the honor with University of Copenhagen Professor Morten Meldal and Scripps Research professor and 1968 Stanford alumnus K. Barry Sharpless, Ph.D., for their work on "the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry."

Bertozzi and Pääbo are the first scientists to join the exclusive club of known LGBTQ Nobel laureates, reported Pink News. All of the other queer winners won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Receiving the honor brings the list to nine known queer Nobel winners, up from seven in 2021, out of 943 people in the prize's more than 125-year history. Last year, Filipina American lesbian journalist Maria Ressa jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian publisher and editor Dmitry Muratov for their work defending freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia, respectively, according to the Nobel Prize news release.

Muratov co-founded and is the editor of Novaya Gazeta, which broke the news about Chechnya's so-called "gay purge" in April 2017. The Bay Area Reporter could not find information about his sexual orientation.

Pääbo responded to the B.A.R. with a smiley face emoji about he and Bertozzi being the first openly queer Nobel scientists in an email interview October 9.

Bertozzi praised Pääbo's work. He is married to Linda Vigilant, a geneticist, and the couple have two children.

"He's an honest person who's queer and proud," Bertozzi said.

Pääbo wrote about his attractions to men and women and his scientific life and discoveries in his 2014 memoir, "Neanderthal Man - In Search of Lost Genomes." He declined to disclose personal information about his children to protect their privacy.

Bertozzi didn't disclose her family's identities to protect their privacy.

Bertozzi and Pääbo recently spoke separately with the B.A.R. about receiving the Nobel, their respective discoveries and their impact on the world, and what their winning Nobel Prizes mean to LGBTQ scientists and queer people around the world.

Getting the call

The two scientists were still bewildered and overwhelmed by the honor and grappling with the reality of being newly minted Nobel laureates several days after being notified.

"I put it together pretty quickly. I was like, 'Oh my God, this cannot be happening,'" Bertozzi said in a phone interview October 7 about when she was awoken at 1:43 a.m. October 5 by a call from Adam Smith, chief scientific officer at Nobel Prize Outreach. "It takes a few minutes for you to sort of try to figure out if it's real or some weird middle-of-the-night hallucination or something."

Since that day, she said her life has been "totally surreal," describing it as "a total blur of craziness."

"It's wonderful," she said, stating it is an "opportunity to cast the light on all the wonderful things that chemists bring to the world."

The news came as an early birthday present for Bertozzi. The chemist turned 56 years old on October 10.

Smith informed her that she was the eighth woman out of 189 people ever awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Bertozzi is Stanford's 36th Nobel laureate, reported the Stanford Daily.

Pääbo, too, was caught off guard in the middle of daily routines when Smith called.

"This can't be true," Pääbo wrote to the B.A.R. about the award. "I have not really digested it yet."

Pääbo's father, biochemist Sune Bergstrom, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on prostaglandins and related substances in 1982.

However, it was his mother, the late chemist Karin Pääbo, who was the greatest influence on his career, "and supported my interest in archaeology and science," Pääbo wrote. His mother, who had a lab tryst with Bergstrom that resulted in his birth, died in 2013.

Pääbo expressed sadness that his mother could not enjoy the Nobel Prize with him. "It makes me a bit sad that she can't experience this day," Pääbo wrote to the B.A.R.

His colleagues helped him celebrate by tossing him into the pond at the institute after a news conference. Pond-tossing is a tradition for Ph.D. candidates when they pass their exams, Pääbo explained to Nature.

Nature is the scientific journal that catapulted his career, publishing his first research paper. It led him to UC Berkeley to work with his postdoctoral adviser the late Allan Wilson, whose own research, published in the same magazine, inspired Pääbo to publish his work, he wrote in his memoir. At UC Berkeley, Pääbo started to work on extinct animal DNA, specifically the marsupial wolf, with Wilson until 1990. Pääbo continued to collaborate with UC Berkeley biologists and professors Montgomery Slatkin and Danish Rasmus Nielsen in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology exchanging research on the first Stanford magazine.

The Nobel Prize is the latest in a distinguished career filled with accolades for her work.

However, the awards and being at the top of her class did not shield her from discrimination. She struggled and paved her own path as a woman in science in a mostly male-dominated field. She made her way to the San Francisco Bay Area for graduate school at UC Berkeley's Department of Chemistry.

It was the ideal environment for Bertozzi to pursue studying cells' sugars. The organic chemistry arm was well-known, it had a significant female presence, and the university was near San Francisco, the "gay mecca," reported Stanford magazine. As a postdoc at the university, she worked in a biology lab, a disciplinary taboo, but Bertozzi's interests and decisions helped her develop a unique and relevant skill set.

Bertozzi is now the director of Stanford's Chemistry, Engineering and Medicine for Human Health institute, aka Sarafan ChEM-H, and a chemistry professor at the university.

She has co-founded eight biomedical start-ups focused mostly on sugar-based diagnostics or therapeutics, reported Stanford magazine. Two of the companies, Palleon Pharmaceuticals and Grace Science, have both a therapy and a drug entering clinical trials in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

Pääbo switched from archaeology and being an Egyptologist to medicine and molecular biology early in his college career at Sweden's Uppsala University, stating he "romanticized" his ideas of archaeology. However, after he married his training and interest changed to studying museums' collections of ancient animal and human bones.

After completing postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Zurich, the University of Munich, and UC Berkeley, he became a professor at the University of Munich in 1990. In 1999, he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he remains as the director. He is also an adjunct professor at Japan's Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.

Pääbo and his team's research helped found the study of paleogenetics, which investigates ancient humans and other species using very old genetic materials. They also discovered a new human species called the Denisovans.

His research into Neanderthals helped battle COVID-19. He discovered that people with a higher percentage of Neanderthal DNA were more likely to become severely ill with COVID-19. The information allowed scientists to respond better to treating newly infected individuals.

Bertozzi founded the new scientific field of bioorthogonal chemistry in 2003. Her discovery of cells' sugar coating acted like a "barcode" and was how cells communicate. She developed ways to see the invisible coating and track, target, and disrupt sick cells without harming healthy cells in the unpredictable environment of living organisms, like humans.

Her findings were also used to battle COVID-19. She and her team were able to use the cells' barcode to create molecules to target COVID-infected cells to "kind of quench this toxic inflammatory reaction" in patients suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome, she explained.

Bertozzi called chemists "superheroes" who answer the call and "come to the rescue" when there's a crisis.

"When there's a crisis in the world, like a pandemic, the solutions come from chemists," she said, pointing to vaccines as an example.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne stated he "could not be more delighted" about Bertozzi winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

"Her work has had remarkable real-world impact, unleashing new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to treat disease," he stated, expressing Stanford's pride in Bertozzi.

Swedish scientist Svante Pääbo looks eye to eye with a replica of a Neanderthal skeleton's skull at the institute in Leipzig, Germany, April 27, 2010. Photo Credit: Frank Vinken for Max-Planck-Gesellschaft via AP  

Next generation
Bertozzi and Pääbo are inspiring the next generation of queer scientists.

Bertozzi advises more than 250 undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, according to an October 5 Stanford University news release.

Gabby Tender, a fifth-year chemistry Ph.D. student, is one of her mentees.

"As a queer Ph.D. student in her lab, Carolyn has been a long time personal and scientific role model of mine," Tender stated. "She has given talks about her personal and professional experiences to young queer scientists on campus, making many of us feeling both supported and heard."

Former graduate student Ellen Sletten, who is now an associate professor at UCLA, called Bertozzi a "fearless leader."

"I'm so grateful that she paved the way because it's made it much easier for all of us in the next generations that have followed," she stated.

More than 35 years after Bertozzi's experiences as a queer woman in science at Harvard, she said in interviews that being an out lesbian appeared to be "somewhere between inspirational and irrelevant." Many reporters are focused on her scientific breakthroughs rather than her sexual orientation, she said.

Bertozzi and Pääbo recognize the privilege they have being able to live their authentic selves and be celebrated. They recognized that isn't the reality for queer people around the world and they serve as an example, and a symbol of hope.

"Hopefully, the light shines a little brighter for queers around the world," Bertozzi said.

The next generation of queer scientists will have much to talk about on LGBTQ+ STEM Day, November 18.

Nobel Prizes are announced every October. The prizes are awarded in humanitarian causes, physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and economic sciences. Nobel Prize winners receive about $900,000, a diploma, and a gold medal at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden's capital, on December 10.

Stockholm is the birthplace of the prize's founder Alfred Nobel, a Swedish scientist, inventor, and businessman. The date of the award ceremony is the anniversary of his death in 1896.

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