Brian Kobilka on UMD, his Nobel Prize, and 'being lucky'

Brian Kobilka never set out to win the Nobel Prize, but on Wednesday Oct. 10, that’s exactly what he did. The UMD alumnus said he was more than happy when he heard of his accomplishment, but a little apprehensive. “Scientists usually don’t have much contact with the press,” Kobilka said. “You know, people calling them, asking them questions that will end up in print that people will actually read.”

Thankfully though, that didn’t stop him from taking the time to talk to a reporter from his old college. Calling all the way from California, where he currently resides as a professor at Stanford, I was able to spend some time with him on the phone. In one of the most rewarding interviews I have ever done.

What did you like most about UMD?

“I really enjoyed interactions with facility, and classes were small. I had a great mentor in Conrad Firling. Other professors in bio chem and math were all really great. I don’t think I could have done better.”

Did you go to UMD knowing what you wanted to do? Or were you undecided?

I went to UMD with the intention of getting a degree in biology and ultimately going to medical school. I wouldn’t say that I had a particular intention of going into research until I got to UMD. And then after taking Dr. Firlings class I went to talk with him and he let me work in his lab. So I would say interest in research really stemmed from my interactions with him.”

What was your plan after graduation?

“When I graduated I still wasn’t quite sure. I applied to graduate and medical school. I can’t remember what was going on in my mind then, but I obviously chose to go to medical school. Medical school at Yale was very much academic and I learned that there were people well above physicians and scientists and had the idea that, well maybe I could do both.

When you decided you wanted to do both, did you start your research right away?

"For a while after medical I was required to actually spend time being a physician in the public health service. So I did my residency, and after my residency I was supposed to spend four years in the public health service. So I didn’t think I would get around to research for quite a while. But while I was in my residency in the public health service, funding for it was severely truncated and I think they almost got rid of it completely. And so there was no place for me to do my service and they allowed me to repay my debt by doing academic medicine…That’s when I decided to go to Duke."

You devoted close to thirty years on researching G-Protein receptors. Why this area of study?

“I was really interested in this family of proteins because when I was doing my training, my clinical training, a lot of the drugs that we gave to people who were really sick worked on these receptors. So I just found them really interesting and knew that they were probably really important in terms of how our body regulates itself. Sometimes you do it for a goal, like to make better medicine, and I’d like to say that was one of my driving forces. But probably the major driving force was just really a keen interest in knowing what these proteins looked like and how they worked.

While doing this research, were you aiming for the Nobel Prize?

“No. And I wouldn't recommend anyone aim for it. There are a tremendous number of extremely gifted scientists, people who have made major contributions and for one reason of another won’t get the Nobel Prize even though they have made that kind of impact.

I’m really happy I got it, but I hope I would have been just as happy with my career if I didn't get it.”

So what’s next? Are you going to continue your research?

“We still don’t have the complete story. There’s still a lot of things we don’t know about these receptors that are probably important in even helping us develop different drugs.

I don’t think I’ll be taking any breaks. I have a group of about 10 people in the lab…They still have projects going on and I need to keep working with them. So there’s not much of an option to quit and take a break, but that’s ok. I like doing what I’m doing.”

Do you have any advice for today’s UMD students?

“No, I don’t think getting the prize necessarily makes me wiser. I was very fortunate, that thing sort of fell into my lap. I had parents who were very supportive. They weren't pushing me to be a doctor or a lawyer or anything special, they wanted me to get whatever education I wanted. I ended up going to a great school that was just right for me. I have an interaction with a professor who was very influential in my future. I guess, I don’t think any of this was really planned on my part.

I’m a pretty lucky guy, I’m excited. I can’t give any advice on how to have such good fortune.”


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