Top honors Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, right, met with three UI prize winners when he visited campus Oct. 10. From left, Paul Lauterbur, 2003 Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine; Carl Woese, winner of the Crafoord Prize, also given by the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences; and Anthony Leggett, 2003 Nobel Prize winner for physics. Blagojevich visited campus to announce capital project funds at the Illini Union.
Photo by Bill Wiegand
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Two days, two Nobels.
Two days in a row, two Nobel Prizes.
Lightning struck the campus early on Oct. 6, then struck again the following day.
“I hardly feel my feet have touched the ground,” said Greg Girolami, head of the chemistry department, speaking three days later and echoing the feelings of others. Girolami spent the day on Oct. 6 with department colleague and neighbor Paul Lauterbur, Nobel laureate #1, helping to field media phone calls and coordinate other related matters.
“I have a great sense of satisfaction on behalf of my department and my university that this has happened,” Girolami said.
Chancellor Nancy Cantor was no less effusive. “I think the awarding of these Nobel Prizes demonstrates how a great university can be both public and excellent,” she said. “These prizes signify, at the highest level of distinction, that you can be a great research university and still be accessible to the citizens of the state and attentive to students in building the future of our nation and its intellectual leadership.”
For two days last week, anyone following the news heard about Illinois and its Nobel winners. But what would be the long-term effect?
“I think it will have beneficial implications for recruiting, retaining and nurturing people here on campus, and for our relationship with the public,” Cantor said.
Charles Zukoski, vice chancellor for research, said the Nobels add “luster” to the university, and will have a “big impact” on attracting students and faculty. “It is a statement of the quality of this institution and our ability to invest in sustained creativity,” he said.
The Nobels, combined with other recent honors, will have students and faculty thinking “that’s a place I want to be,” Zukoski said, especially if they know that an “amazing number” of Nobel laureates once worked in the labs of Nobel laureates.
Jeremiah Sullivan, head of the physics department, spent much of Oct. 7 with that day’s winner, department colleague Anthony Leggett, Nobel laureate #2, playing a role similar to Girolami’s. He agreed that the Nobels can only help in recruitment of students and faculty, in physics, in the sciences, and on the campus at large.
It also may help in raising the rankings of the university, especially in rankings that rely heavily on others’ general perceptions of a school’s quality and reputation.
For many on campus, the timing of the Nobels was both ironic and welcome, coming as they did following three years of budget cuts from the state, the most recent being the most painful. While realizing that the state had difficult choices to make, “budget cuts send us a message, unintended perhaps, that we’re not valued for what we do … it makes it harder to do what we do with the same level of enthusiasm,” Girolami said.
“We’re human, we like to hear that what we do is valued by others … and budget cuts don’t do that, Nobel Prizes do.”
Sullivan, in a similar vein, thought the prizes would improve morale and bring a new burst of energy. “It won’t substitute for things we need, but it will help,” he said.
One surprise in the timing of the Nobel announcements was that they came only 11 days after microbiologist Carl Woese accepted the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which also awards the Nobels. The Crafoord, announced in February, is considered to be on a par with the Nobel and is awarded in scientific fields not covered by the Nobel.
Also, on the day word came of Lauterbur’s Nobel, it was announced that chemistry professor Scott Silverman had won a Packard Fellowship, one of only 16 given this year.
The Nobels also followed only a few weeks after Richard Powers, novelist and Illinois English professor, learned he was the winner of the 2002 John Dos Passos Prize for Literature.
But the Nobel, rightly or wrongly, is one of the few academic awards, and perhaps the only one in the sciences, that brings with it almost universal recognition by the public. “It’s something that you can talk to the public about, and they will immediately understand that this is a measure of the quality of the University of Illinois,” Girolami said. “I don’t care who you are, you immediately understand that this means there’s something very special that’s going on here.”
The question is how that will translate into support for the campus, by both the state and the public.
Zukoski said he wants to reinforce the message that the research environment that produces and attracts potential Nobel laureates only results from sustained investment.
“New ideas are rare. New applications are rare and hard to get, and in fact are expensive. But if you don’t consistently support the creative process at an institution like the University of Illinois, then it falls apart. You have to then start putting the investments in again for another 50 years to start building it up again.”
Sullivan said he hoped the Nobels would provide researchers and the campus with “a good-news story to work from and build upon … to inspire us to tell our story more effectively – to do what we’ve been doing, but to do it even better.”