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Stanford's Michael Levitt shares Nobel Prize in chemistry

Second Nobel this week for School of Medicine faculty

Stanford University structural biologist Michael Levitt Wednesday won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for "the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems."

Levitt, a professor at the School of Medicine, uses computer models to study biological phenomena, specifically focusing on the structures and interactions of large molecules called macromolecules. Since the 1960s, when computers were programmed using holes punched into cards, Levitt's research intersected the disciplines of computer science and biology.

"(Levitt) was interdisciplinary before it was fancy to be interdisciplinary," said John L. Hennessey, president of Stanford University. "He was a computer hacker when it was cool."

He shares the $1.2 million prize with Martin Karplus of the University of Strasbourg in France and Harvard University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California.

Levitt's prize was the second Nobel for Stanford this week. On Monday, Thomas Sudhof, professor of molecular and cellular physiology in the School of Medicine, learned he shares the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists who also have Stanford connections. Levitt and Sudhof are the nineteenth and twentieth living Nobel Laureates at Stanford University.

"My day started at 1 a.m. when I went to sleep," said Levitt. "And then I was awoken 10 minutes later," by the phone call from Sweden.

"My phone never rings," he added. "Everyone sends me texts and emails. So when the phone first rang I was sure it was a wrong number. When it rang a second time I picked it up. I immediately heard a Swedish accent and got very excited. It was like having five double espressos."

The South African-born Levitt, who holds U.S., British and Israeli citizenship, joined Stanford's Department of Structural Biology in 1987.

His work in determining the structure of important molecules contributes to understanding their function within the body and also how they might interact with pharmaceutical drugs designed to treat disease.

"Molecules work because of their structure," he said. "And cells worked because of where things are placed inside. The only way to interfere is to first learn their three-dimensional structure. If you wanted to change a city but had no idea of where the buildings are, you would have no idea where to start."

During a Wednesday press conference he recognized his wife of 46 years, Rina, an artist, for supporting him.

"I am a very passionate scientist, but passionate scientists often make very bad husbands," he said. The couple has three sons and three grandchildren.

He also credited the computer industry for much of the work he accomplished.

"There is a very clear computational aspect in this prize," said Levitt. "One of the problems I suppose with computer science is there is no Nobel Prize for computer science. This award is recognition of the importance of computation in biology."

Upon learning the news this morning, he called his 98-year-old mother Gertrude in London.

"She is very happy," he said. "I am hoping she can come to Stockholm with me."

— Kim D'Ardenne

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