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A Day Like No Other

Agre, surrounded by the postdocs, grad students, techs and faculty members in his lab group. They were the ones, he said, who did all the work.

Peter Courtland Agre

Agre with Denise Montell. His tie, which features the periodic table of elements, was given to him when the aquaporin breakthrough was made. “I have been waiting for a special occasion to wear it,” he said.

Arriving at the lab on the morning of Oct. 8.

With graduate students Yangjian Liu and Connie Liu.

With Bill Brody and Chi Dang, following a press conference in Tilghman Auditorium.

Reporters take note.

Postdoc Jennifer Carbrey heard the news, like hundreds of other Hopkins employees, on the radio as she drove to work. Lab tech Trish Ward knew something was up when she came down the hall and noticed her colleagues jumping up and down outside Physiology 413. David Kozono was the last to know.

Kozono, an M.D./Ph.D. student who had just completed his graduate research in the Agre lab, was holed up all morning in an OR where he was second assist on a complex prostatectomy with Pat Walsh, director of Urology. At around 11 a.m. Walsh casually mentioned what had occurred. To Kozono, the news was earth-shattering. “At first I didn’t believe him, but then the circulating nurse confirmed the news. For the sake of the patient, rather than jump for joy, I had to keep a gilvernet and a retractor steady for about five minutes before Dr. Walsh finally dismissed me to join the party.”

That’s about how things went for the lab group on the morning of Oct. 8 as one by one they discovered that their boss, Peter Agre, the scientist who discovered the first water-transportation tunnels in the walls of cells, had won the world’s most prestigious honor in science, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The first thing Agre did when he took the podium at a press conference early that afternoon was acknowledge the 15 postdocs, grad students and techs who work in the now famous lab. “I didn’t do this work; the young people in the lab did it. I just made the coffee and sharpened the pencils.”

The remark was vintage Agre. Self-effacing and unpretentious, he projects none of the gravitas one might expect in a Nobel Laureate. That day, in fact, he came across as a sort of “dad-next-door” type, caught up in the mundane tasks of everyday life.

After being awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the call from Stockholm, Agre poured coffee for friends and neighbors who dropped by his Stoneleigh home in suburban Baltimore. When University President Bill Brody called to express congratulations, Agre was taking out the trash. A Baltimore Sun photographer captured him in front of his refrigerator, festooned with photos and all the trappings of a busy, suburban family life. Later, when asked how he planned to celebrate that evening, he said he would probably eat dinner with his wife and daughter, wash the dishes and walk the dog. As it turned out, he did all that—plus put in an appearance on “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer.”

Agre’s remarks were replete with references to family—his own and Hopkins’. His wife, he noted, likes to remind him that though they may not be rich in material possessions, they are rich in family. That, Agre said, is how he feels about Hopkins, the place where he has spent half his life.

“Here at Hopkins, with the young people, staff and colleagues, we are rich. This [research] could never have happened as fast as it did without the wonderful resources and collaborators available here. This is an honor for the entire Hopkins family,” he said. “This could have happened to any of my colleagues, but I was up at bat when a fast ball was thrown right down the middle of the plate.”

Balloons and yellow and white roses filled a conference room on the 6th floor of the Biophysics Building as University and School of Medicine leaders came together for an impromptu luncheon in Agre’s honor. The small lab group, taking a break from the phone calls and e-mails pouring in from all around the world, was there as well.

What will happen to them now? “We don’t know!” they exclaimed in unison. “We just know that there’ll be no experiments today,” said Carbrey, laughing. For this group, the future suddenly looks brighter than ever. “This will mean lots of publicity for our lab. It helps to say ‘Nobel Laureate,’” acknowledged Carbrey, a seven-year veteran of the Agre lab.

Agre’s big prize should motivate many other lab groups, said Vice Dean Chi Dang. “This should be an encouragement for the young scientists that persistence and dedication will yield the joy of discoveries and occasionally, fringe benefits.”

- Anne Bennett Swingle
photography by Keith Weller

> Peter Agre's Find Made by Chance and the History of the Nobel Prize



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