On the day he won the Nobel Prize, Irwin Rose couldn’t wait to get to campus.
Yes, he enjoyed sharing the thrill of receiving science’s biggest award with overjoyed colleagues in the College of Health Sciences. But he had something else he needed to do.
So, after a media teleconference during which he fielded dozens of questions, Rose quietly slipped into a building named after another UCI Nobel laureate, Frederick Reines, where he used the university’s powerful mass spectrometry facility to analyze the contents of two test tubes that had been nestled in his breast pocket all day.
This dedication to his work, even when he had every good reason to take the day off, isn’t surprising to anyone who knows “Ernie” Rose. This is a man, after all, who maintains a mini-lab in his kitchen, should a late-night idea require immediate action.
A SCIENCE DEVOTEÉ
Considered a consummate scientist by colleagues, Rose has forged an unparalleled career as one of the world’s top biochemists, one that began as a teenager in Spokane, Wash., when he decided to devote his life to investigating the complex activities within cells.
Rose spent the better part of his career as a research scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where during the late 1970s and early ’80s, he helped reveal how ubiquitin molecules — the body’s cellular building blocks — facilitate the breakdown of old and damaged proteins. These findings of the “kiss-of-death” mechanisms inside cells proved revolutionary, transforming the field of cell biology and ultimately fostering a new understanding of the molecular activity involved with cancer and other diseases.
For this work, Rose, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko from the Israel Institute of Technology shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and with it, a lifetime’s worth of international acclaim — even if it has been cutting into the amount of time Rose can devote to his work.
“It’s been strange, I tell you. You get so much attention and notoriety,” he says. “Anybody would want to do something worthy of achieving a Nobel Prize. It’s such an honor. But recognition for the work is long overdue, because it’s such an important area of research.”
Rose is the third UCI researcher to earn a Nobel Prize. In 1995, Nobel Prizes were awarded to F. Sherwood Rowland in chemistry and Reines in physics.
“Ernie is a truly brilliant and dedicated scientist — his work is his life,” says Ann Skalka, senior vice president of basic sciences at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “Ernie was truly instrumental in uncovering the ubiquitin pathway; all of the seminal work was done in his laboratory at Fox Chase. However, Ernie has never tried to take any credit for it. But the Nobel selection committee got it right, much to the delight of all of his colleagues.”
After retiring from Fox Chase, Rose accepted a special research position with UCI’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics in 1997, where he continues to study the mechanisms of fumarase, an enzyme involved in the citric acid cycle, the cellular pathway by which higher organisms convert food into energy. He maintains a rigorous routine, working in his on-campus lab three to four times a week and publishing on average one research paper a year.
“Everyone is very proud that we have Ernie in our department,” says Janos Lanyi, professor and chair of physiology and biophysics. “He’s an inspiration to both our faculty and students.”
Of course, when the call from Stockholm came on Oct. 6, Rose’s life changed.
ADMIRERS OLD AND NEW
First came the phone calls — from dozens of U.S. newspapers and media outlets as far away as Israel and Romania. And then the e-mails and letters — streams of congratulations from the world’s top universities and research centers, and autograph requests from Nobel junkies both near (Kansas and Pennsylvania) and far (the Netherlands and India). A Swedish television crew even came to spend a day with him.
“It’s been different,” Rose admits. “I’ve been able to do
some work, but not as much as I’d like to.”
Not all of the attention has been a distraction, however. Rose received one letter from an old classmate. “He wanted to know if I was the Irwin Rose he knew when he was 13,” he says. “I was amazed and delighted to hear from him.”
And then came a gift from Monica Stanley’s 8th grade science class at Anacapa Middle School in Ventura, Calif. Her students built an autograph album of construction and plain-white paper and filled it with salutations like, “Hey, Ernie, congrats on ur [sic] science Noble [sic] prize,” and “Rock on, Mr. Dude.”
“These are some of the nice things that have happened,” Rose says with a smile.
And the test-tube experiment? The results came out exactly as Rose had predicted. In fact, he’s organizing them into a new research paper he hopes to have published.
Nobel Prize or not, for Ernie Rose, science marches on.