UPDATED: October 6, 2022 at 2:48 a.m.
Carolyn R. Bertozzi ’88 was one of three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry,” the Nobel Committee announced Wednesday morning.
Bertozzi is the first alum of Harvard College to win the chemistry prize since Martin Karplus ’51 won the prize in 2013. She is also the first alumna of the College to win a Nobel Prize and the eighth woman to win the prize in chemistry.
Click chemistry allows scientists to snap together molecular building blocks into complex molecules. Chemists K. Barry Sharpless and Morten P. Meldal concurrently developed click chemistry and share the prize with Bertozzi. Sharpless, who completed his postdoctoral work at Harvard, previously won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2001.
Bertozzi, now a professor at Stanford University, “took click chemistry to a new dimension and began using it to map cells,” according to the Nobel Committee.
“Her bioorthogonal reactions are now contributing to more targeted cancer treatments, among many other applications,” the committee wrote in a press release announcing the prize recipients.
Steven G. Boxer, the chair of Stanford’s chemistry department, lauded Bertozzi’s accomplishments in a statement to The Crimson.
“She represents all the best at the interface of Chemistry and Biology,” Boxer wrote.
“Harvard can be proud, Berkeley too (where she was a grad student and for a time on the faculty), UCSF (where she was a postdoc) and, of course, Stanford.”
In an interview with The Crimson, Bertozzi said that she was woken up by a phone call from the Nobel Committee at 1:43 a.m. Wednesday.
“I looked at the number, and it was a weird international number — and it's from Sweden — and I saw that, I was like, oh, no, no, no, no, no,” she said. “So, suddenly, the chair of the Nobel committee is on the phone congratulating me and giving me the news.”
Bertozzi — who had initially planned to pursue medicine when she was an undergrad — said Harvard was influential in her path to becoming a chemist.
After taking Chemistry 17: Principles of Organic Chemistry, Bertozzi “killed the premed idea,” she said.
“I just knew I wanted to be an organic chemist, and Harvard did that for me,” she said. “Harvard brought me and organic chemistry together.”
“I would want to be left alone on Friday and Saturday night just to read o-chem books in the library,” she added.
While at Harvard, Bertozzi, a Quincy House resident, was inducted into Harvard’s chapter of academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa and played in a band called Bored of Education alongside future Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom B. Morello ’86.
“Both orgo and playing with Tom Morello, both were sort of the substance of my sophomore year,” she said. “Playing in that band was really just a highlight of my college years — and getting to play with someone as gifted as Tom was phenomenal.”
Bertozzi said that while the Nobel Prize recognized her work on bioorthogonal chemistry, her work has become more “clinical” in recent years.
“I'm trying to get some of these technologies translated into human medicines, and I have a couple of molecules in two of my companies that are in clinical trials now,” she said.
Within 10 minutes of the Nobel Committee’s announcement Wednesday morning, a Stanford press group was at Bertozzi’s door, she said. Bertozzi spent the rest of the day celebrating and meeting with press and university leaders.
“'I'm losing my voice, I'm exhausted, sleep deprived. And I'm overjoyed,” Bertozzi said.
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at email@example.com.