Nobel Prize gives researcher and Hopkins more exposure

Few understand the club that Adam Riess joined Tuesday when he received a 5:30 a.m. phone call from Sweden.

But Carol Greider received the same call two years ago, and soon she'll sit with her Johns Hopkins University colleague and tell him what it's like to become a Nobel laureate.

"It's going to be a complete whirlwind at first," the molecular biologist said after a news conference for Riess. "First it's the press, but then it's the academic community. I was getting 200 to 300 emails a day after I won."

A Nobel victory creates many ripples. For the winner, it means research dollars, worldwide speaking engagements and lucrative job offers from other universities. For an institution such as Hopkins, it creates a new face to represent the possibilities of an ambitious research mission.

For Riess, who becomes the fourth Nobel winner on the Hopkins faculty, it meant finding champagne in his office when he arrived at work Tuesday. "So that was a good start," he said of life as a laureate. As a 2008 winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, Riess has experience with high-profile prizes. He said all the attention associated with the Nobel is unlikely to change his career course.

Riess hopes to continue his telescope research on the acceleration of the universe. "When you win, you probably win because you've done a pretty good job doing one thing. So I think it makes sense to keep doing that thing."

His words fell in line with the advice Greider planned to offer.

"The key will be staying focused on what's really important and staying focused on your research," she said. "It's going to be a very enjoyable experience for him. It opens doors to giving input on national-level discussions that would otherwise be closed."

Despite his unassuming answers, Riess is about to become a symbol of what Hopkins aspires to be as an institution. He was already one of the faculty members Provost Lloyd Minor planned to highlight as part of a yearlong project to promote innovation.

On Tuesday, Minor said Riess has demonstrated the wonderful things that happen when the best minds are unleashed on the biggest questions of our time.

"I think it's important to Hopkins, because it shows that we're attracting the very best faculty and they're doing work that's recognized around the world," Minor said of the Nobel. "It recognizes the fundamental contribution that Adam has made in understanding the universe, and it gives our students something to aspire to."

The provost said one of his favorite things about Riess is that the lauded researcher teaches a class to undergraduate, non-physics majors on the nature of the universe.

"I think that shows you how Adam embodies the kind of university we are," Minor said. "We want to encourage collegiality and collaboration, inquiry and discovery at all levels."

Greider said the Nobels — Hopkins professors, graduates and visiting fellows have won 35 — reflect to the world the university's commitment to ground-breaking research. "It's a testament to the support of the fundamental sciences," she said.

As Riess learns the ropes of life as a Nobel laureate, he will be able to look to three faculty colleagues who have won science's most prestigious prize in the last decade.

Riccardo Giacconi, a professor of physics and astronomy, won the 2001 physics prize for his work in X-ray astronomy.

Peter Agre of the School of Medicine won the 2003 chemistry prize for his discovery of aquaporins, proteins that regulate the flow of water in all living cells. Agre subsequently became fascinated with the protein's role in the malaria bug's life cycle, research he continues to explore as director of the Malaria Research Institute at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

And Greider, director of molecular biology and genetics in the School of Medicine, won the 2009 prize in physiology or medicine for discovering an enzyme called telomerase, which plays a crucial role in the genetic life of cells and holds promise for developing treatments to fight cancer and age-related diseases.

Post-Nobel life is not always a smooth journey. Winners discover that no matter how lauded they were in the past, requests for speaking engagements and recruiting pitches from other universities suddenly skyrocket, disrupting their lives.

Agre, who was out of the country Tuesday, left Hopkins for two years to serve as vice chancellor of science and technology at Duke, a move he made in part to restore order to a career that had been thrown into chaos by his Nobel win.

In a 2005 interview, Agre said it had become almost impossible to continue normal life as a researcher. He criss-crossed the world, making as many as 100 speeches a year. He even appeared on "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central to talk about the importance of science education.

Agre said life became so hectic that he asked his tissue culture technician to double as an office assistant, while his sister-in-law volunteered to answer phone calls and email twice a week.

His departure to Duke created a tumult at Hopkins, where colleagues wondered why the university had been unable to keep him. And his return to run the malaria institute was greeted with relief.

Minor said Nobel laureates go in many different directions after winning the big prize. Some simply continue with their research, while others, such as Agre, become broader advocates for science. Still others decide that they've done all they can in one area of research and move to another.

"It's a choice they've earned," the Hopkins provost said.

As a young laureate of 41, Riess could probably take any of those paths. But he placed himself firmly in the "stay the course" group.

He won the Nobel for his 1998 discovery that the universe is accelerating. He hypothesized that a mysterious dark energy is the cause, but 13 years later, that remains a best guess rather than a certainty. Riess is working on new techniques to improve the Hubble Space Telescope's measurements of the universe's expansion. He hopes such measures might give him a better handle on the nature of dark energy.

He sounded more excited about that continuing quest than anything else Tuesday.

"I think Adam is still as enthusiastic about the science he does and the future of the science he's doing as he was when he was an undergraduate," Minor said. "So I think this is recognition for the beginning of an outstanding career. This discovery is not the last thing we're going to be hearing from Adam."

Riess said the Nobel can't hurt future attempts to attract funding and top researchers for his team. Neither can the $1.49 million cash prize, which he'll split with two other winners. In the wake of winning the $500,000 MacArthur award, he learned how nice it was to have extra money in his pocket. When he needed a new $25,000 filter for a mountaintop telescope, he said in a 2010 interview, he simply bought it instead of going through the trouble of seeking a grant.

But in a nod to his pure scientist soul, Riess said he wants the quality of his research, not a prize, to define his path forward.

"I've always been impressed that in science, the process of allocating resources is based on merit of ideas," he said. "I hope it will always be that way. We don't count the number of awards somebody has won when we decide who's going to get time on the telescope."