Stanford professor Carolyn Bertozzi won the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry early Wednesday morning alongside researchers at the University of Copenhagen and Scripps Research for her work developing click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.
Bertozzi, a chemistry professor and director of Sarafan ChEM-H on campus, shares the approximately $1 million prize with Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless Ph.D. ’68. Her research includes mapping cells through bioorthogonal reactions, discoveries crucial for health innovations, including cancer treatments alongside other applications.
Bertozzi is Stanford’s 36th Nobel laureate, including Econometrics Professor Guido Imbens, who won the economics Nobel in 2021. In addition to the Nobel being a career-defining achievement, Bertozzi’s win serves as an inspiration for women and queer people in STEM, said faculty and students in interviews. Out of the 189 individuals who have won for chemistry, only eight of them are women, including Bertozzi.
“[Eight women] is not a huge number, but I’m very optimistic because there’s so much talent, and I’m lucky enough to be the one of the women who’s picked to share the prize this year,” Bertozzi told The Daily. “Then I have a platform now that I can use to hopefully, you know, keep that trend moving in the right direction.”
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne congratulated Bertozzi through an announcement to the University as well as in the Stanford Report.
“I could not be more delighted that Carolyn Bertozzi has won the Nobel Prize in chemistry,” he told the Stanford News. “In pioneering the field of bioorthogonal chemistry, Carolyn invented a new way of studying biomolecular processes, one that has helped scientists around the world gain deeper understanding of chemical reactions in living systems.”
Bertozzi grew up in Boston, Mass. and later received her A.B. summa cum laude at Harvard for chemistry in 1988. She completed her Ph.D. in chemistry at University of California, Berkeley in 1993 and later attended University of California, San Francisco as a postdoctoral fellow. She joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1996 and later came to Stanford in 2015.
The win is also an early birthday gift for Bertozzi, who will turn 56 on Monday.
Bertozzi recounted in her interview with them that the Nobel committee member told her, “You have 50 minutes to collect yourself and wait until your life changes.”
Later, in a morning interview with The Daily outside the Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning (STLC), Bertozzi relayed her excitement upon hearing the news — she said she first worried the commotion was an indication of chaos, such as her lab burning down or a family emergency. But the call turned out to be exciting news.
“I was sound asleep but they called at 1:43 a.m. — I have a screenshot on my phone to remember — and the phone was buzzing and buzzing [and it took] me a while to wake up,” she said. “But then, he was the chair of the Nobel Committee. And then, little by little I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is seriously happening’.”
Bertozzi said the moment felt surreal: “I had to kind of shake my head to make sure it wasn’t hallucinating or some dream or something,” she said. “And [the Nobel Committee was] sharing with me information about what happens next. Well, I don’t remember anything they said.”
Life was “non-stop” after the announcement, Bertozzi said. Within minutes, Stanford’s communications team was at her doorstep, as well as reporters and photographers from various news organizations. She also completed Zoom interviews with the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. (Bertozzi said The Globe’s visit in particular was special — she’s from Massachusetts.)
Bertozzi’s win was celebrated by many across campus, including colleagues and friend Sharon Long, a biology professor at Stanford. The two have known each other since Bertozzi’s time as a postdoc in San Francisco. There, Long’s lab studied “a bacterial biosynthesis process that involved sulfation while [Bertozzi] analyzed the importance of sulfation on a mammalian cell surface glycan.”
“Reading widely beyond her field, she saw that one of our enzymes might be a useful reagent,” Long recounted in an email. “Even as a postdoctoral fellow, she already showed the creativity, imagination and experimental fearlessness that characterizes all her work. She can see the really important questions, and if there isn’t a way to answer them, she will invent a new approach so that the critical experiments become possible.”
Members of Bertozzi’s lab also praised the win, including fifth-year chemistry Ph.D. student Gabby Tender and sixth-year chemistry Ph.D. student Green Ahn. The lab studies “explorations at the interface of chemistry and biology will spawn new medicines and diagnostics that improve human health, technologies for probing natural biology, and roadmaps for creating synthetic forms of life engineered to serve human needs.”
Ahn said Bertozzi’s kindness left a mark on the lab — Bertozzi is “incredibly supportive and always gives a tremendous amount of credit to her mentees,” Ahn said.
“The training in her lab enables her mentees to become independent scientists after their time in the lab,” Ahn added. “Her drive to use chemistry to impact human health inspires all of us.”
Tender said that as a woman in the lab, she appreciated not only Bertozzi’s commitment to the science in the group, but also “her dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
“As a queer Ph.D. student in her lab, Carolyn has been a long time personal and scientific role model of mine,” Tender said. “She has given talks about her personal and professional experiences to young queer scientists on campus, making many of us feeling both supported and heard.”