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Finding Inspiration in the Nobel Laureates

What do television sets, DNA sequencing and “The Jungle Book” have in common? They are all the end products of the work of Nobel Prize winners. This week, a new cohort of laureates have been honored in the areas of Physiology or Medicine, Physics, Chemistry and Literature, with awards for Peace and Economics still to be announced. Each of the award recipients receives a gold medal, a diploma and a cash prize. The real honor, however, is the induction into a very exclusive group of people who represent the best and brightest among us.

So far, this year’s Nobel laureates include: William C. Campbell, Satoshi ┼îmura and Youyou Tu (Physiology or Medicine) for discoveries that led to revolutionary treatments for devastating parasitic diseases; Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald (Physics) for discovering that subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass; Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar (Chemistry) for unlocking cellular secrets of DNA repair; and Svetlana Alexievich (Literature) for her groundbreaking work in journalism.

Since its establishment in 1898 by the estate of Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prize has been awarded close to 900 times to an array of individuals whose achievements have conferred the “greatest benefit on mankind”. Although the prize has not been awarded every year, it is a recurring reminder of the potential we have as a society to reach new heights in our quest for knowledge and for a better world. Many of the prizes have been awarded for breakthroughs in applied medicine and technology, without which many of our modern comforts would not exist. Others have been awarded for achievements in more abstract fields such as economics theory, which have revolutionized the way in which we think about ourselves and the world.
Looking back on the range of award recipients over the years is also a poignant reminder of the potential that lies within all students — regardless of background, race or gender — to excel and achieve intellectual greatness. Marie Curie (Physics, Chemistry), for example, was not only the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, but also the first person to receive two prizes (in two different fields, no less). Dr. Har Gobind Khorana (Physiology or Medicine) came from a poor family in a small village in India, but went on to become the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry emeritus at MIT. James M. Buchanan Jr. (Economics) grew up working on a farm in Tennessee and went on to establish the public choice school of economics.
As the world becomes increasingly dependent on STEM fields for its sustainment, development and innovation in these fields will be critical to our success as a society. The past and present Nobel laureates remind us of the power that education and critical thinking can have in altering the path not only of a single individual’s life, but of our society as a whole. Where will the next generation of Nobel laureates come from? With any luck, the work that NMSI and its partner schools are doing to improve STEM education in our country will help ensure that a host of future Nobel laureates will...