A Passion for Scientific Discovery

February 8, 2012

Rakesh Kumar, Aaron Ciechanover and Ferid Murad seated in conversation

From left to right, Rakesh Kumar, chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Aaron Ciechanover, recipient of the 2004 Nobel prize in chemistry; and Ferid Murad, GW university professor and recipient of the 1998 Nobel prize in medicine.

Nobel laureates Aaron Ciechanover and Ferid Murad had a number of lessons to offer George Washington University students.

And they both agreed on one thing: Good science requires dedication and a willingness to take risks.

“The way you do research is to do it on the edge of the envelope – something that’s never been done,” said Dr. Murad, who received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1998 for his discovery of the role of nitric oxide in the cardiovascular system. “If you do something that’s been done before, you’re only confirming it.”

Dr. Murad, a world-renowned pioneer in biochemistry, joined GW’s faculty last year as a university professor, the university’s highest academic rank. Earlier this week, Dr. Murad hosted a fellow Nobel laureate, Dr. Ciechanover, on campus. Dr. Ciechanover received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2004 for his discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation. Over breakfast with around 50 students from across the university, the two Nobel laureates spoke about their commitment to science and dedication to teaching.

“My work is my hobby,” said Dr. Ciechanover. “I’m like a painter. My lab is a studio. I really have no purpose in life other than to discover and to enjoy.”

Both Nobel laureates have medical and doctorate degrees – Dr. Murad in pharmacology and Dr. Ciechanover in biochemistry – education they said has helped them become better scientists.

“The M.D. gives me a broader understanding of research in the lab, and [the doctorate] helps me understand the basic science behind a patient’s problem,” said Dr. Murad, who completed a combined seven-year medical and doctoral degree program at Case Western University. “When I look at a problem, I think about everything.”

But Dr. Ciechanover stressed that students shouldn’t be bound by time.

“I didn’t really start my career until my 30s. People are always rushing, but today people can have a career for 40 to 50 years,” said Dr. Ciechanover, who flipped back and forth between clinical medicine and chemistry research for years until deciding to spend his career inside a lab.

These pieces of advice particularly resonated with Victoria Whitehill, a graduate student in the College of Professional Studies studying molecular biotechnology.

“To hear that Dr. Ciechanover had a wandering path was really reassuring. I was a neuroscience major in college and minored in business and now I want to work for a biotech company. So I haven’t had a straight path,” said Ms. Whitehill. “But listening to Dr. Ciechanover validated what I’m trying to do, which is do what I’m really passionate about.”

The event, which was moderated by Provost Steven Lerman, was hosted by the School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which is chaired by Rakesh Kumar, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. SMHS, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Professional Studies, the School of Public Health and Health Services and the Office of Graduate Medical Education each got to select a few students to attend the breakfast.

“I love science so I’m really interested in chemistry and biology. Getting the opportunity to hear from Dr. Murad and Dr. Ciechanover is a really amazing opportunity,” said Paaqua Grant, B.S. ’07 and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Both Nobel laureates stressed the importance of finding a mentor.

“Mentorship is really critical for career development,” said Dr. Ciechanover.

Dr. Murad is already serving as a mentor for many GW graduate and medical students and leading a lab in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“I tell my trainees if they have a good idea, we better get going because tomorrow someone else will have the same idea,” said Dr. Murad. “With science, there’s always more to research. Once you solve one problem, there’s a lot more to be solved.”

Dr. Murad’s discovery not only contributed to a better understanding of how information is transmitted between cells but also had a significant influence on cardiovascular medicine, leading to changes in treatment following a heart attack. His research has also influenced the treatment of cancer, arthritis and other human diseases.

Dr. Murad’s love for science causes him to be a self-described workaholic.

“I might be watching the Super Bowl, but my mind is somewhere else – on an experiment I want to do,” he said. “With science, it’s a rare day you’re not excited to go to work.”

Sometimes he even wakes up in the middle of the night to write down ideas for experiments.

While both Dr. Murad and Dr. Ciechanover have received the biggest prize in science, they both said students shouldn’t design their research with an award in mind or what might lead to the biggest discovery. Instead, their advice was for students to do what fascinates them.

“You ultimately need to be driven by your excitement and passion to science,” said Dr. Murad.