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Roderick MacKinnon

2003 Nobel Prize winner Roderick MacKinnon met with Institute of Technology students this week to give them perspective and inspiration.

Prized visit

Nobel Prize winner in chemistry shares wisdom with U students

By Rhonda Zurn

October 3, 2007

When 2003 Nobel Prize winner Roderick MacKinnon recently visited an undergraduate chemistry class, U students wanted to find out who he was as a person. "How did it feel to win the Nobel Prize?" "What was your least favorite science class in college?" "How often are you wrong?"

On winning the Nobel Prize: "It was great! I wasn't home [to get the message] so I actually have a recording [of it] on my answering machine." His least favorite science class was biology: "There's too much to remember!" He also joked that he's wrong "about 95 percent of the time."

MacKinnon, who won his Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discoveries concerning the molecular mechanisms in cell membranes, advised students to study the things they like rather than the things that will give them a secure job.

"The secure job today may not be a secure job tomorrow, but if you're studying the things you like, you'll be very good at it," MacKinnon said.

Building a broad base of knowledge in many areas, rather than specializing in one area, is also critical to future success. MacKinnon shared his own experience of going to medical school to be a family practice doctor before realizing that his real interest was science.

"It was in the middle of the night on New Year's Eve. All my friends and family were out of town, and I couldn't sleep so I decided to run some data on my experiments, which I know is a pretty nerdy thing to do," he laughed. "But there I was, running the experiment, and I couldn't believe my eyes. I was literally jumping up and down in the lab."

"You never know what you're going to do," MacKinnon said. "I am example of somebody who didn't know what I was going to do until I was almost 30, but I had a broad base of knowledge that opened up a lot of opportunities for me."

That broad base of knowledge can mean success even for students doing their first research project. "Learn everything you can that is often considered peripheral because that will give you new ways to solve the problem," he said.

MacKinnon said that when researching the electricity of living organisms, he started reading books in electrical engineering, and it completely changed his view of his research. He said it's incredible how often the exact same things show up in different fields of research, and researchers don't even know about them.

"If you read about topics in fields outside your own it's amazing how it will open up your thinking," MacKinnon said. "Also, if you then share this information with people in your own field, they think that you created it," he said with a laugh.

MacKinnon's classroom talk was part of a two-day visit to the University of Minnesota this week sponsored by Honeywell and hosted by the University's Institute of Technology (IT). In addition to the classroom visit, MacKinnon's activities at the University included one-on-one talks with IT graduate students exhibiting their research, a public lecture that drew more than 400 people, and meetings with faculty and student leaders.

The University of Minnesota is one of only five universities nationwide chosen for the Honeywell-Nobel Initiative. This initiative provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students to interact with one of today's greatest minds in science to gain insight into what it means to be an innovator.

MacKinnon's groundbreaking discoveries deal with the function of ion channels, which control the pace of the heart, regulate hormone secretion, and generate the electrical impulses underlying information transfer in the nervous system. He hopes that his work will someday lead to new medications or cures for epilepsy, irregular heartbeats, or multiple sclerosis.

MacKinnon told students it's just a part of science to be wrong. "There are scientists who are so afraid of being wrong that they never are able to make a discovery," he said. "In research you need to make a leap and make a prediction and then keep testing and testing. Many times you find out your prediction was wrong."

But for MacKinnon, he clearly remembers one instance when things went right. "It was in the middle of the night on New Year's Eve. All my friends and family were out of town, and I couldn't sleep so I decided to run some data on my experiments, which I know is a pretty nerdy thing to do," he laughed. "But there I was, running the experiment, and I couldn't believe my eyes. I was literally jumping up and down in the lab."

Since winning the Nobel Prize, MacKinnon said he gets many requests to speak and declines most of them. He agreed to this visit because of its goal to inspire students to pursue science.

"We have many problems today that really can only be solved with science," MacKinnon said. "I feel that inspiring the next generation of scientists is one of the most important things I can do."

The students in the class were impressed with MacKinnon.

"I liked hearing about how he felt when he won the Nobel Prize and when he had a big discovery in the lab. Those aren't things you hear people like him talk about very often," said Christina Cowman, a junior majoring in chemistry and physics. "It was also good to hear that he's wrong sometimes, just like us. That inspired me to keep trying."