As the winners of the 2019 Nobel Prizes for outstanding work in medicine, physics, chemistry, and economics gather in Stockholm, Sweden to be honored for their research accomplishments, The Science Coalition celebrates the seven laureates who have ties to our member universities.
Their life-changing discoveries include learning how cells adapt to changes in oxygen levels, creating the theoretical framework for our understanding of the cosmos, developing modern-day lithium-ion batteries, and fighting global poverty. These achievements were built on a foundation of fundamental research – and would not be possible without support from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Defense – and underscore the critical need for sustained, robust, and predictable federal investment in America’s scientific enterprise.
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr., said it best, “The unexpected application shows the importance of basic research and curiosity-driven science — undervalued today in a culture that often wants to know what results to expect before the work is underway, and leaves little room to pursue the unknown.”
Physiology – Medicine: Discovering How Cells Respond to Oxygen Levels
Johns Hopkins University Professor Dr. Gregg Semenza, a University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University alumnus, Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr., and Peter J. Ratcliffe of the Francis Crick Institute and Oxford University were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The award was presented for their work on discovering how cells adapt to changes in oxygen levels, furthering our understanding of how the element’s availability affects the body and unleashing new strategies in fighting disease.
With support from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Semenza began this research in 1990. Knowing that oxygen levels are constantly fluctuating and wondering how cells respond, Dr. Semenza observed when oxygen levels are low, cells make more of a protein known as the hypoxia-inducible factor, or HIF-1. Building on this initial discovery by Dr. Semenza, a few years later, Dr. Kaelin was able to characterize how oxygen levels in cells regulate the quantity of HIF-1 protein production.
Both Dr. Semenza and Dr. Kaelin’s discoveries have become integral to basic biological understanding and have vital applications, most notably in the fight against cancer.
Physics: Building Our Framework of the Universe
Among this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics winners is Princeton University Professor Emeritus Dr. James Peebles for his work to expand our knowledge of the universe. The theoretical framework Dr. Peebles developed over the course of two decades is the basis of all we know about the cosmos – from the Big Bang to the present day.
Dr. Peebles began developing his theoretical framework in 1964 at a time when there were few observations and many questions about the universe’s beginnings.
“I remember thinking I might complete two or three projects in this subject [cosmology] and then move on to something less speculative. That never happened because each project led to ideas for others, in a flow that was too interesting to resist,” Dr. Peebles said.
Among his numerous accomplishments is the discovery of radiation behind the Big Bang and the existence of cold dark matter. Still, Dr. Peebles knows there’s more work to be done.
“We can be very sure that my theory isn’t the final answer. And we can be very sure that as we discover new aspects of the expanding and evolving universe, we will be amazed once again.”
Dr. Peebles has received tremendous support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) throughout his career.
Chemistry: Developing Lithium-ion Batteries
This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to a group of researchers whose discovery impacts everyday life. University of Texas at Austin Professor Dr. John B. Goodenough and Binghamton University Professor Dr. M. Stanley Whittingham were recognized for developing the lithium-ion batteries that power our phones, computers, other wireless devices, and more.
“The research I have been involved with for over 30 years has helped advance how we store and use energy at a foundational level,” Dr. Whittingham said.
Dr. Whittingham’s work began in the 1970s as he was looking to develop approaches for fossil-free energy. Though it had some practical issues, including the risk of explosion, Dr. Whittingham created the first functional lithium battery.
Dr. Goodenough, who has received funding from NSF through the years, then built on Whittingham’s version of the battery, switching one material for another and doubling the voltage power. Dr. Goodenough’s version is what became today’s lithium-ion battery.
Economic Sciences: Research to Fight Global Poverty
This year’s Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to Harvard Professor Dr. Michael Kremer and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Dr. Esther Duflo and Dr. Abhijit Banerjee for their experiment-based research to fight global poverty.
Speaking about his research, Dr. Kremer said, “The combination of deep engagement on the ground with intellectual rigor is producing very exciting work, both in terms of understanding the world and in helping to provide practical solutions to problems affecting some of the poorest people in the world.”
Dr. Duflo and Dr. Banerjee agree, and have been intertwined with Kremer’s work for some time. According to Banerjee, “experiment-based work in development economics was a little-explored area of research 20 years ago but has grown significantly since then,” and Dr. Duflo cites Dr. Kremer as an inspiration to antipoverty researchers and the field as a whole.
“Our goal is to make sure the fight against poverty is based on scientific evidence,” Dr. Duflo said.
Throughout their research careers, both Dr. Duflo and Dr. Banerjee have received grants from NSF, the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Whether it is developing what we know about the universe or creating the devices to power modern technologies, the discoveries recognized by this year’s prizes are rooted in fundamental research and serve as an important reminder that Nobel Prize-winning research does not happen overnight or by mere circumstance.
Federal investment in science and continued support for the unique partnership between America’s research universities and federal research agencies remain the key ingredients to ensuring the success of future research and innovation.