Brian Kobilka is reeling. Since being named the co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October of last year, his life has taken on a People magazine quality. For an unassuming man who rides his bike to work and spends most of his days in a lab or at a computer writing grants, the events of the past few months are surreal.
Kobilka, professor of molecular and cellular physiology and medicine, shares the Nobel Prize with his former post-doctorate advisor, Robert Lefkowitz, MD. They accepted their award on December 10, 2012, in Stockholm for their work on G-protein-coupled receptors.
Before traveling to Sweden to accept his prize, Kobilka received an invitation from the Swedish and Norwegian embassies to attend a special reception in Washington, DC, followed by a private meeting with President Obama in the White House. On short notice, Kobilka and his wife, Tong Sun Kobilka, flew to Washington for the honor. After more security than he'd ever experienced, Kobilka and the other American Nobel Laureates were escorted into a reception area in the West Wing, where President Obama greeted each of them individually, and congratulated them as a group for their achievements.
That evening the Kobilka's dined at the home of the Swedish Ambassador, together with dignitaries including Supreme Court justices, senators, members of congress and fellow scientist Steven Chu, an American physicist who is the current United States Secretary of Energy.
"I had no idea there were so many traditions involved," says Kobilka. Two days after returning from Washington, he and his family were on their way to Stockholm, where they were treated like VIPs upon arrival, with a personal assistant and car to help them navigate the week's activities. Kobilka's first order of business was to be fitted for a tuxedo, as the induction ceremony required white tie and tails.
Kobilka was amazed at the reception he received by the general Swedish citizens, many of whom were at the hotel each day to seek autographs from the Laureates. "It's not like that in the U.S.," he says, but he has received multiple email requests for autographs and signed photos. His wife helps him manage his "fan mail."
A week of activities that included press interviews, a BBC taping of Nobel Minds, informal dinners and a presentation of his findings, culminated in a police-escorted motorcade to the lavish awards ceremony, held in the Blue Hall in Stockholm. Kobilka received his prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, who presented him with a hand-painted diploma, a medal and a document confirming the prize amount.
At the lavish banquet for 1,500 that followed, Kobilka was seated next to Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden. Also in attendance were other members of the royal family, the Swedish academy and previous Laureates. After dinner, Kobilka and his wife had a private audience with the King and Queen.
"It was the most pomp and circumstance I have ever experienced," he says. "Receiving the Nobel Prize is a great honor, but the Swedish people made it more so by their hospitality and attention to detail. Although meeting the President of the United States was more meaningful to me, it is really special how the Swedish people make you feel."
Kobilka joins an esteemed group of more than 800 Nobel Laureates. Of those, 162 individuals have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In his long career, Kobilka never imagined winning such a prize. He never even gave it any thought.
"It feels good to know that people thought enough of my work to recognize it," says Kobilka. "But it doesn't really change the day to day."
Despite his newfound fame, Kobilka has no plans to take it easy. "If anything, I feel more pressure to continue to do research at a high level," he says. "The discovery last year was a big step, but there are still a lot of questions left unanswered. We have determined the structure of receptors at a high level, but will this help us develop better drugs?" This is just one of the many questions Kobilka and his team continue to tackle as they try new ways to apply what they've learned to more practical applications for future drug discovery.
By Grace Hammerstrom