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Up front

Noble Nobel

by Jason Matthew Smith, editor

I think it’s fair to say that October 8, 2007 was one of the most significant dates in the University of Utah’s history.

Early that morning (and I mean early—say, 3 a.m. or so Mountain Daylight Time) the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, in Stockholm, Sweden, made a transatlantic phone call to the University’s own Mario Capecchi, distinguished professor of human genetics and biology at the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, to inform him that he had received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with two other researchers. The prize recognizes Capecchi’s pioneering development of a gene-targeting technique that has revolutionized the study of mammalian biology.

The U has, in fact, been on “Nobel Watch” for years. We have long known that Capecchi was on a short list of candidates for the coveted prize. It was fairly clear, after he received the Kyoto Prize and the Lasker Award, that he was a serious contender for the most prestigious honor of them all, the Nobel.

Each year, Lee Siegel and Phil Sahm of the U’s public relations staffs for the main campus and Health Sciences dragged themselves out of bed very early that morning in October, when the Nobel Prizes in medicine/physiology are announced, fired up their computers, and waited to see whom had been chosen. Banners congratulating Capecchi were printed some time ago, and a drill for who would call whom to spread the word around campus and to the press as efficiently as possible had long been in place—all very orderly and professional. But despite that, the team of Nobel watchers chewed their fingernails to the quick every October in anticipation of Capecchi’s name appearing on the Nobel Web site.

It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere on campus the morning following the announcement that he had finally won. The vibe at the press conference (available on the U’s podcast site at was downright giddy—understandably. Finally, the rest of the world knew something the U had figured out a long time ago—that Mario Capecchi is a creative and brilliant thinker whose ideas can, and do, significantly impact medicine. In fact, Capecchi’s groundbreaking work gives hope to those suffering from cancers and genetic diseases, and his own journey from war-ravaged Italy to a laboratory at the University of Utah makes for a compelling tale.

In this issue, we celebrate the life and work of the University’s first Nobel Laureate with a story by Susan Sample. Capecchi’s life, laced with plenty of challenges and setbacks, serves as an example of how dogged determination against seemingly overwhelming odds can lead to remarkable achievement.

Other articles in this issue illustrate the importance of determination as a creative engine. Despite delays, painter Anton Rasmussen has recently completed a monumental new work for the renovated Student Lounge in the Union building, which has garnered much praise. Managing Editor Linda Marion offers a peek into Rasmussen’s thought and creative processes. And Kelley Lindberg introduces us to five award-winning teachers at the U who, like their colleagues across campus, are determined to make the classroom a laboratory for brewing life-altering experiences for their students.

Elsewhere in this issue, U of U historian Marcus Hall wrestles with the natural world as he explores the devastation wrought by avalanches. We also include profiles of gymnast Daria Bijak and writer-alumna April Christofferson. Vice President for Research Ray Gesteland closes out the issue with some thoughts on how the U encourages and cultivates top-tier researchers.

It’s appropriate that Gesteland round out this issue, as he retires from his post as vice president for research in December 2007, leaving behind some mighty big shoes to fill. His leadership and tireless support of the U’s mission has gone a long way toward laying the groundwork for the U’s next batch of Nobel Prize winners.

Rejoice and enjoy.

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