Renowned biochemist Gregory A. Petsko, Harvard Medical School professor of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, received a 2022 National Medal of Science on Oct. 24.
Petsko was recognized for his career-spanning research into neurodegenerative diseases and protein function, as well as his advocacy for “aging with dignity,” according to a National Science and Technology Medals Foundation press release.
Awarded to nine recipients by President Joe Biden, the medal is “the highest honor bestowed upon American scientists,” according to the National Science Foundation’s website.
Petsko’s current research has sought to understand the causes of ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s and potential therapeutics, a pivot from groundbreaking research earlier in his career on the structures of enzymes.
Petsko said in an interview with The Crimson that while receiving the award is the culmination of a lifetime body of work, “that’s not what makes this award really special.”
“What makes this award really special is that to get it, you also have to have done some service to your country,” Petsko said.
Petsko said he began conducting research on neurodegenerative diseases two decades ago after coming to a realization that they were like “a comet about to hit the Earth.”
“When I started to read about them, I realized, to my shock, that we were facing an epidemic coming of neurodegenerative diseases because the population was getting older, rapidly,” he said.
To advocate for greater recognition of these diseases, Petsko testified before Congress, performed Ted Talks, visited schools, and researched potential therapeutics.
“I decided I had one last chance, at age 55, to try to do one more work of noble note,” said Petsko, who is now 75.
At Princeton, Petsko studied both classical literature and chemistry. He received the Rhodes Scholarship and completed a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics at Oxford.
Petsko urged students to develop a love for learning and gain confidence in their ability to learn, without being overly focused on their field of study.
“I have a professorship at Harvard Medical School in a field in which I have never taken a single course. I won the National Medal of Science in a field in which I have never taken a single course,” Petsko said. “Stop worrying. None of us knows what the future is going to look like.”
Petsko encouraged students to be ambitious, adding that he believes “most people don’t aim high enough.”
“Whatever you do — it doesn’t matter if it’s science or something else — aim high,” Petsko said. “I decided when I was 55 or so that I wasn’t probably aiming as high as I should be, so I tried to aim higher.”
Petsko also advised students against being overly cynical.
“Skepticism is really healthy. I’d like to encourage that,” Petsko said. “Cynicism, I’m not so sure is a good thing.”
Petsko said his most important achievement is not his research contributions, explaining that somebody else would’ve done the scientific work if he hadn’t. Rather, Petsko said he is most proud of creating impact through pedagogy.
“The students I’ve trained, the young people I’ve taught — that’s what has really mattered the most,” he said.
Though the prospect of curing a disease is rare and Petsko is nearing retirement, he said he remains determined to continue his work. The next step in Petsko’s research is to develop gene therapies to potentially treat ALS and Alzheimer’s disease.
“I’ll borrow a line from the musical ‘Hamilton’ — This is pretty much my shot, and I don’t wanna waste it,” Petsko said. “Realistically, it’ll probably fail — I can live with that. What I could never live with is not having tried.”