Nobel 2006: Not just Nobels, but a spate of awards highlights years of excellence in research at the School of Medicine

Steve Gladfelter/VAS

Among the medical school’s 2006 top award winners are (from left) Leonard Herzenberg, David Relman, Andrew Fire, Roger Kornberg, Karla Kirkegaard and Kwabena Boahen.

We don't mean to brag but... well, who are we kidding? The School of Medicine had quite a week, with Andrew Fire winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 2 and Roger Kornberg winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Oct. 4.

The two awards follow a string of other recent notable achievements. Over the past three years, faculty members at the school have earned seven of the 34 NIH Director's Pioneer Awards, which recognize the most talented young bioscientists. This year's three Stanford winners are David Relman, Karla Kirkegaard and Kwabena Boahen.

Earlier this year, Leonard Herzenberg won a Kyoto Prize, Japan's most prestigious scientific award. And medical school faculty continue to rank among the highest in terms of per-investigator NIH funding.

Indeed, in discussing Kornberg's Nobel Prize, Steve Inskeep, the co-anchor of NPR's "Morning Edition," underscored the school's success when he asked science reporter Richard Harris, "What are they doing right over there?" Harris pointed to the school's focus on basic research that cuts across disciplines rather than an exclusive interest in clinical medicine. "I think they've taken a broad view about how to do biology," he said.

Dean Philip Pizzo attributed the medical school's good fortune to a combination of a strong foundation in basic science research, decades of careful hiring and a commitment to innovative, interdisciplinary projects. "In addition to brilliance, creativity and tenacity, luck is also important," he added.

Pizzo credits much of the current success to groundwork laid in 1959, when the medical school moved from San Francisco to the Palo Alto campus. Stanford recruited Arthur Kornberg (Roger Kornberg's father) and other leading researchers from Washington University to establish the biochemistry department. Among those accompanying Kornberg, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that year, was Paul Berg who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980.

Also in 1959, the school established its Department of Genetics under Joshua Lederberg, who had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine the previous year. (Lederberg became president of Rockefeller University in 1978.)

"Nearly overnight Stanford went from a regional medical school to a nationally ranked, research-intensive one," Pizzo said. That original group not only gave the medical school its strong base in basic science, but also worked to establish connections with other schools on campus.

"Drs. Kornberg and Lederberg began reaching out to faculty throughout the university—especially from the physical and engineering sciences—and this laid the foundations for interdisciplinary research," he said.

Now Pizzo is building on that success by bringing a new emphasis on interdisciplinary projects and translating basic research into the clinic, said Daria Mochly-Rosen, senior associate dean for research. "Innovation and creativity are highly rewarded here, and we believe great things come from basic, non-directed research," she said.

Stephen Galli, chair of the Department of Pathology in which Fire has his primary appointment, noted that other schools also foster great science. In his Oct. 2 news conference, Fire said that the Carnegie Institution, where he did his Nobel Prize-winning work, was one such place.

But Galli and Mochly-Rosen both mentioned one thing that sets Stanford apart: its unusual hiring strategy. While some schools hire several assistant professors and then evaluate the hirees' success in funding and publications to determine who gets the tenured job, the medical school's small size—the number of faculty is much less than at other top medical schools—forces it to take a more focused approach to recruiting and cultivating young faculty members. For each tenure track job that's available, the school hires one assistant professor and puts extensive mentoring and resources into assuring that the researcher thrives.

"The same factors that bring talented young investigators to our faculty also attract established people like Andy," Galli said, citing Fire's decision to come to Stanford as a full professor in 2003.

Galli is so confident that he's preparing for additional Nobels. Fire's departmental photo now boasts a gold star; Galli said he bought an entire package of stars in anticipation of prizes to come.