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Brian Kobilka (left) and his wife, Tong Sun Kobilka, answer questions from reporters after hearing news of Brian Kobilka’s Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday, at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. The Kobilkas met in the 1970s while students at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Linda A. Cicero | Associated Press

Nobel Prize winner was gifted UMD student

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By Jana Hollingsworth, jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com

DULUTH — Brian Kobilka’s first research project at the University of Minnesota Duluth was studying gene expression in the salivary glands of insects.

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That was pretty advanced for the time, according to Conrad Firling, professor emeritus of biology at UMD. Firling, who worked closely with the undergraduate Kobilka in the 1970s, spoke proudly of him Wednesday after learning that Kobilka had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry along with Robert Lefkowitz. The prize was awarded for the pair’s study of protein receptors.

Firling said he could tell 36 years ago that the chemistry and biology double major was gifted. It was almost unheard of at that time for undergraduate students to conduct research.

“He was probably one of the first in the country,” he said, and now he’s won “the highest award given to any scientist in the world.”

Kobilka, a 1977 UMD graduate and Little Falls, Minn., native, is a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. He met his wife, Tong Sun Thian, in a biology class at UMD.

He and Lefkowitz were awarded the prize for their study of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key to developing better drugs. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Lefkowitz and Kobilka had made groundbreaking discoveries, mainly in the 1980s, on an important family of receptors known as G-protein-coupled receptors.

About half of all medications act on these receptors, including beta blockers and antihistamines, so learning about them will help scientists to come up with better drugs. In 2011, Kobilka achieved another breakthrough when his team captured an image of the receptor for adrenaline at the moment when it is activated by a hormone and sends a signal into the cell. The academy called the image “a molecular masterpiece.”

Kobilka, 57, worked for Lefkowitz at Duke before transferring to Stanford.

He said he got a call from the Nobel committee in Sweden at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. He said he missed the phone the first time it rang, but when he answered the second call, he spoke to five members of the committee.

“They passed the phone around and congratulated me,” Kobilka told the Associated Press. “I guess they do that so you actually believe them. When one person calls you, it can be a joke, but when five people with convincing Swedish accents call you, then it isn’t a joke.’

Kobilka said he would put his half of the $1.2 million award toward retirement or “pass it on to my kids.”

UMD chemistry professor Bob Carlson also taught Kobilka. It was also rare at the time to have a student double-majoring in chemistry and biology, allowing for collaboration between the two departments.

“Everyone knew at the time he was someone special and worth our extra effort to do things in a way that wasn’t typical to accommodate his capability,” Carlson said. “He didn’t have to talk about (being) capable. He just did it right. He did everything right.”

Firling recalls Kobilka as a reserved and friendly student, but one who wasn’t above pranks. He shares this story:

Kobilka invited Firling and his wife to a student party.

“As you know, students never, never invite faculty to a party,” Firling said.

The couple stayed for an hour. When they got up to leave, all the students in the house followed them outside. Kobilka had arranged to have Firling’s car jacked up, but because the car was surrounded by students, the pair didn’t notice as they got in. Firling couldn’t get the car to move, he said.

“They kept on talking to me and in the meantime, they took down the jacks,” he said, laughing. “It took me a while to figure out what was happening.”

Kobilka who is into biking, was always a good student, said his sister, Pamela Elconin of Minnetonka, Minn. The prize won’t change him, she said, because he comes from humble roots. Their father, Franklyn, a baker who died in 2004, would be “bursting at the seams” about the news, she said. “It would be hard for him to put into words how fabulous this is.”

The honor sets “a wonderful example” for UMD students, said Bilin Psai, head of the chemistry department at UMD.

“A lot of us have sent e-mail messages to our classes letting them know that not so long ago there was a student just like you sitting in these various classes. … His trajectory has really soared.”

This is the second Twin Ports connection to the Nobel Prize in three years.

Superior native Oliver Williamson won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009, sharing it with Elinor Ostrom.

Williamson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, mapped out a multidisciplinary field to study how varying organizational structures for markets and institutions affect economic activity. It is said to have influenced everything from electricity deregulation in California to investment in Eastern Europe to human resource management in the technology industry.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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