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Vol. LXV, No. 25
December 6, 2013

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2013 Nobelist Levitt Speaks at NIH
2013 Nobel laureate Dr. Michael Levitt

2013 Nobel laureate Dr. Michael Levitt

Dr. Michael Levitt, 2013 Nobel laureate in chemistry, gave a special NIH lecture on “The Birth and Future of Computational Structural Biology” Nov. 18 in Masur Auditorium.

Along with Drs. Martin Karplus and Arieh Warshel, Levitt won this year’s chemistry prize for the development of computer-based methods to model complex systems.

Speaking to a full house in Masur, he reviewed “how it all began,” ongoing research and offered his thoughts on the future of the field.

Now a professor in the department of structural biology at Stanford University School of Medicine, Levitt was present at the birth of computational structural biology more than 46 years ago.

“This work was pushed ahead by technology,” Levitt said. “The fourth awardee should be the computer.”

Levitt’s self-effacing humor fit his refrain: that he stood on the shoulders of giants: “The Nobel says you were at the right place at the right time when you were 20 years old.”

He paid homage to many earlier scientists, including some Nobelists, upon whose work Levitt’s success depended: “Linus Pauling, the greatest chemist ever,” as well as Francis Crick, James Watson, John Kendrew, Max Perutz and David Phillips, among others.

Before his talk, Levitt chats with the man who introduced him, Dr. Bill Eaton, chief of NIDDK’s Laboratory of Chemical Physics.

Before his talk, Levitt chats with the man who introduced him, Dr. Bill Eaton, chief of NIDDK’s Laboratory of Chemical Physics.

Photos: Bill Branson

Computational structural biology harnesses computers to calculate the locations, movements and interactions of individual atoms within molecules. The ability to obtain these structural details enables the development of interactive, 3-D graphical models of proteins and other large molecules.

Thanks to computer-based modeling, researchers across the globe can now visualize and manipulate molecules with astonishing speed and flexibility. This helps them investigate diseases, search for drug targets and probe the inner workings of basic life processes.

Levitt’s lecture focused on scientific lessons learned from this work, ongoing research in his group and advice on the conduct of a successful science career, including an admonition to mix family and work. He joked, “Behind every successful man, there is a surprised wife...I think [my wife] is getting more and more surprised.”

In his advice to young scientists, he advised being passionate, persistent and original. He closed with this coda: “Be kind and good—it never, ever hurts. Even if you’re really nasty inside, be kind and good to people,” he said to laughter. “It really pays off well.”

The complete lecture is archived at—Belle Waring

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