The race to report on the Nobel Prizes

Credit: Milad Abolhasani/NCSU

The Nobel Prize announcements are big events at Chemical & Engineering News. But we find out the winners at the same time as everyone else.

Then, the race is on for our reporters.

This year, staffers Laurel Oldach and Mitch Jacoby took on the task of covering the science prizes. In this episode, they reflect on this year’s winning research in chemistry and medicine and share what it’s like covering some of the most prestigious prizes in science.

C&EN Uncovered, a project from C&EN’s podcast, Stereo Chemistry, offers a deeper look at subjects from recent stories. Check out our reporting on the 2023 Nobel Prizes at https://cen.acs.org/magazine/101/10133.html.

Subscribe toStereo Chemistry now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Executive producer: Gina Vitale

Reporters: Mitch Jacoby and Laurel Oldach

Audio editor: Brian Gutierrez

Story editor: Christopher Gorski

Episode artwork: Milad Abolhasani/NCSU

Music: “Hot Chocolate,” by Aves

Contact Stereo Chemistry: Contact us on social media at @cenmag or email [email protected].

The following is a transcript of the episode. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.< /p>

Gina Vitale: Welcome to C&EN Uncovered. I’m Gina Vitale, subbing in for our regular host, Craig Bettenhausen.

C&EN Uncovered is a podcast project from Stereo Chemistry. In each episode, we’ll take another look at a recent story or set of stories in Chemical & Engineering News and hear from C&EN reporters about striking moments from their reporting, their biggest takeaways, and what got left on the cutting-room floor.

Now, usually in these episodes, we’re talking about a cover story, but in this episode, we’re actually looking at our stories on some of the 2023 Nobel Prizes and going behind the scenes on reporting on the Nobels in general. We are actually recording this podcast on Oct. 4th, the day the chemistry prizes were announced.

Here with me to talk about the prizes are the C&EN reporters who have been covering them, Mitch Jacoby and Laurel Oldach. Hi, guys.

Gina: This year, Laurel covered the Nobel Prize in [Physiology or] Medicine, which was for mRNA [messenger RNA] vaccine research, and Mitch covered the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was awarded for quantum dots. The reason we are talking about the Nobel Prize in medicine in addition to the chemistry prize is because it’s actually quite chemistry related and something that we cover at C&EN a lot. So we brought both of these reporters on to talk about both of these prizes.

Now, let’s just take it in chronological order. The Nobel Prize in medicine was announced first, on Monday, Oct. 2nd. Laurel, can you tell us a little bit more about what this prize was for?

Laurel: Sure, absolutely. So the prize this year was awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. This is a prize that has been expected by a whole lot of people since mRNA vaccines made their big debut, to the point that if you watch the press conferences for the physiology and medicine Nobel in 2021 and in 2022, some of reporters’ first questions were, “So why not mRNA vaccines this year?”

So the key advance that these two made: they were looking to turn our own cells into protein factories. But of course, turning your cells into factories to make proteins is exactly also what viruses want to do. And so the innate immune system is pretty good at recognizing efforts to do that.

So if it recognizes something as foreign, then it destroys it. The mRNA never has, then, a chance to become a protein that you want to use to train your immune system—which is what we use vaccines for.

So the key advance that the Nobel committee recognized was that they [the winners] figured out how to modify mRNA that was made in a test tube so that it wouldn’t activate your immune system.

In this case, having pseudouridine instead of uridine in mRNA that was produced in a test tube was enough to reduce that inflammatory innate immune response and allow the mRNA that they injected to turn cells into little protein factories and basically gave the foreign protein a chance to be recognized.

It can also be used to do other things that pharma, as you well know, Gina, is sort of starting to explore now. Not just vaccines, but also potentially enzyme replacement for metabolic diseases and all kinds of stuff like that.

Gina: So today, Oct. 4th, was the prize that I think a lot of our listeners were most looking forward to. That was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and that was awarded to Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus, and Alexei Ekimov.

Mitch, can you tell us more about that prize?

Mitch: Sure. So the prize was awarded for people who were the pioneers in developing and understanding and synthesizing quantum dots. Quantum dots are nanometer-sized crystals of semiconductors. They’re called quantum dots because these particles readily exhibit some unusual quantum effects. But the ones that quantum dots exhibit are pretty easy to see with your eye.

By carefully controlling the size of the nanocrystals—let’s say having a little vial that has one size, another vial with a slightly larger one, a different vial with a slightly larger one yet—you can produce colors in all the colors of the rainbow and many colors that you don’t even see in the rainbow as well. And all of that is due to the quantum nature of these little crystals.

Gina: And why do we want to be able to do that?

Mitch: Ah, there’s so many neat things about that. First of all, it explains some very, very fundamental things in physics and chemistry. And it gives you a test bed to probe those fundamental things. But the thing about them that’s really attractive is their applications.

Because quantum dots have these unusual optical properties—as I said, they can be prepared to fluoresce in all the colors of the rainbow, and they have many, many other properties too, but the optical ones are the easiest ones to grasp—they have been used in all kinds of applications. The most famous one is in quantum dot televisions. It’s so famous that you can walk into any big-box store anywhere in the world, probably, and find these huge boxes of ultrasharp, ultra-high-resolution TV screens that say “quantum dot” right on the box. So that’s one thing, high-resolution televisions.

They’re also used in other light-emitting devices, like light-emitting diodes, and lasers, and other devices like that. But beyond all that kind of stuff, they’ve also been used—because of their optical properties—in medical diagnostics and things like biomedical imaging, where they’re used to tag certain types of tissues and tag cells.

Gina: So, I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but the Nobel Prizes are announced [at] 5:30, 5:45, very early in the morning, eastern time. And this is something that a lot of our reporters every year will get up early in order to cover or to be, you know, sort of on call for covering should this fall into their particular beat or topic area.

I wonder if you guys have any rituals for getting up this early? Is there a specific Nobel day thing that you like to do? Do you like to have a cup of coffee ready? Is there a way you stay awake?

Laurel: My husband gives me a hard time because I always keep the 4:45 and 5:00 a.m. Monday and Wednesday alarms in my phone, like, year-round. I turn them off. But I have them because it just makes me smile to see them. Generally, I don’t use them.

Gina: But you’re like, “Soon. October.”

Laurel: Yeah, soon. Those two days in October, the two days when I cover breaking news, they’re coming. So that’s my special Nobel thing.

Mitch: That’s great. It’s even earlier for me because I’m in Chicago, which is on central time. So I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. and I have to move. And Gina, you have to set your alarm for 2:00 a.m.

Gina: Well, I will, I will confess this year I did not get up with the prizes because I am, I am now based in California. So I left that to Mitch.

Mitch: Well, I definitely set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. I got up at that time on all 3 days this week—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—in case I was able to help with the physiology and medicine prize and then to write the other two prizes [physics and chemistry]. And do I have any techniques? Yeah, my most important technique is I set my phone and I put it under my pillow so that it makes my bed vibrate and make noise.

And definitely coffee. You asked whether or not I had a—how did you call it?—a habit of, like, preparing a cup of coffee? No, I prepare two cups of coffee. Yeah, coffee definitely gets me through the work.

Gina: And a special shout-out to Mitch, who covered the Nobel in chem this morning, so you’ve got to be nearing your 12th hour at work.

Mitch: No, I’m looking for—who knows?—I’m looking forward to going running later this afternoon.

Gina: Wow, I would be immediately in bed taking a nap, so that’s awesome.

Mitch: No, I’ll go running later and then celebrate with a beer. How’s that?

So how do you guys—The prize is announced. We have no idea what it is. What are you thinking in those first few seconds? Are you, you know, are you focused on the science? Are you like, “Oh my God, I don’t know what that is.” Are you already thinking about sources? What are the first few thoughts running through your head?

Laurel: I would say that usually my first thought is, “Am I going to be the one to cover this?” And that’s been something that I’ve thought at previous jobs as well. I used to work for a biochemistry organization, so there were some physiology and some chemistry prizes that were just too far outside of scope for us. And yeah, after that it’s, “Gosh, who could tell me more about that?”

In the couple of minutes before the committee sort of launches into their deeper scientific explanation, I always try and pay attention to that.

Mitch: Well, I guess I don’t prepare myself very much ahead of time because who knows what the topic’s going to be? Who knows who the prizewinners are going to be? And then the chemistry prize. Well, we have a bunch of people on staff who stand by as the prize is being announced, and then we make a last-second decision who’s going to write it based on their subject expertise.

And it just turns out that the prize was awarded for quantum dots. I’m like, “Quantum dots. I’ve been writing about that since, like, 1998 or something.” I’m like, “I could do it if you want, if anybody else wants to take it,” and nope, the messages came in very quick, “You do it. You do it.” Like, “OK, happy to do it.”

So I got lucky in this case. Sometimes I don’t know what the topic’s about.

Gina: Mitch, when did you start at C&EN?

Mitch: Nineteen ninety-seven. I am now unbelievably in my 26th year. I don’t know how that happened.

I’ve had one-on-one conversations with Moungi Bawendi and Lou Brus over the years. I sat with Moungi Bawendi more than 20 years ago in his office at MIT late in the afternoon. And I sat with Lou Brus in his office at Columbia, it must be 15 years ago. But those are people whose names I’ve known for all the years that I’ve been at C&E News.

Gina: So I’m wondering, has there ever been one that, like, totally flabbergasted you and you were like, “I don’t even, this wasn’t even on my radar”?

Laurel: Yeah, I think I’ve been covering the Nobels for 3 or 4 years. And last year, when the prize in physiology or medicine went to Svante Pääbo for ancient DNA, man, oh man, that was something I just knew absolutely nothing about. I mean, you know, I had sequenced DNA, but I didn’t know a whole ton about the pitfalls, and that was what his work was all about.

Man, that was one where I was learning a whole, whole lot under pressure in 2 hours.

Gina: I remember that. Yeah, Mitch, have you ever been caught off guard by one?

Mitch: Well, have I been caught off guard? You just have to kind of be resourceful. These days there’s really good material that comes out from the Nobel Foundation. They send out two press releases, one for general audiences and one with a lot more information. During the press announcement itself, they have something similar. They have two people get up and speak about the prize. So you have an opportunity to very quickly learn a few things, and then you have to do, of course, a bunch of fact-checking. But there’s materials that are available, and, you know, in a reasonable amount of time, you can make sense out of what’s going on.

Gina: How do you guys go about finding sources? Are you going to people that you know? Are you trying to find new people? What’s your strategy? I understand it depends a lot on the topic.

Mitch: Well, I would write a single message asking for input, asking for comments, asking, “Can you tell me, just in a sentence or two, what the prize is being awarded for and what the significance of that is?”

And I might send almost the same message—a verbatim thing—to multiple people. And I might include a little line at the bottom saying, “I’m sending this message to others because I’m on a very tight deadline.” And hopefully somebody will reply to me within, you know, my deadline.

The trick is to find people who are in a comfortable time zone. That is, since we’re in the US, send them to people in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East, or something like that because for them it’s the middle of the day already.

Laurel: Yeah, I would say that I probably do something pretty similar. In physiology or medicine especially, there’s kind of a series of prizes that people tend to win before they win the Nobel Prize. So, for instance, if someone’s gotten the Gairdner Award and the Lasker Award and the Breakthrough Prize, then they’re on kind of a short list of people likely to win the Nobel Prize at some point. So for those folks, I try and think ahead of time about, “Who would I talk to? Who is the best possible source on this?”

But other times, the kinds of insights that you can get from really scattershotting it and kind of seeing the picture as these disparate people reply can be really cool.

Gina: So the decisions for who gets the Nobel, I think is kind of a mysterious process. You know, like, I always imagine some people going into a smoke-filled room and just emerging with the names.

So nobody knows what it’s going to be until it’s announced, but this year was a little bit different in that there was actually a leak of the chemistry prizes. I think it was early this morning. I don’t know if I know the details. I think an email went out to some media. Do you guys—are you briefed on this?

Laurel: Yeah, so a Swedish newspaper broke the news. They had received an email in Swedish, a press release that announced the name of the three laureates, and they reproduced the text of that email, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences vehemently denied that the decision had been finalized. They said it was a mistake. This decision hasn’t been made. There’s no decision taken until it’s been taken. But I think about 4 h later, the announcement was made that those three laureates had won for their work on quantum dots.

And so it does raise a lot of questions about what exactly the process of the academy looks like at this late stage before the prize.

Gina: Yeah, fascinating to me that, that, you know, even in the early hours of this morning, their line was not, you know, “This was not meant to be leaked.” It was that, “We have not decided yet.” And that just makes me so curious about when that decision is actually finalized.

Laurel: I may have gotten a little too interested in this. I would love to know how the leak happened. I think it’s really interesting from, you know, a comms perspective. I think it’s interesting from a crisis-communications perspective. And then, as I said, it’s this sort of insight into that sort of shadowy realm of Nobel committee folks who are so incredibly secretive.

Gina: So, we like to ask, Was there anything from this story that got left out? Is there anything in your coverage of the Nobels this week that you thought was interesting but you couldn’t seem to fit in the story, or just, you know, something that you found out about the prizewinners?

Laurel: One other stray fact that just really delights me is at least two of the laureates this year—Anne L’Huillier in physics and Moungi Bawendi in chemistry—the two of them both had teaching obligations on the mornings where they received notifications that they had won the prize.

L’Huillier, I believe, was in the middle of a lecture when her phone just went off and she completed the lecture. Told her students, “Oh, sorry, guys, I won the Nobel Prize,” and completed her lecture.

And Bawendi, I believe, you know, mentioned during the, the early morning for him, Nobel press conference, that he had to teach at 9:00, and later MIT organized a press conference, and he had been to this 9:00 a.m. physics class and didn’t end up teaching about what he had intended to teach about that day but did go and sit with undergrads and tell them about his career. And I thought that was really cool and not necessarily expected behavior and just really speaks to the character of all of the laureates this year.

Gina: That is so special. I can’t imagine being in either of those rooms.

Mitch: A big piece of the work for which the chemistry prize was awarded was the chemical synthesis of quantum dots, and I definitely did not go into any of that in the story, because in the space of a few hundred words, I don’t think anybody wants to hear about hexanoic acid and these other things that go into making these quantum dots do what they really do.

But they wouldn’t be able to do any of that stuff if the chemistry wasn’t there.

Laurel: I think the, the personal story of Katalin Karikó, especially—and to a lesser extent, Drew Weissman—is a pretty remarkable one.

Every year around the Nobel Prizes, there’s a conversation about the culture of science and what we lionize and why. And I think, Karikó and Weissman are a particularly poignant example of work that was, for a long time, not recognized and not lionized and not supported and yet has turned out to be incredibly important.

You know, if I had had more hours to understand better just how she kept going, I, I would have, have really liked to have delved more deeply into that. Such an inspiring figure.

Gina: If you could change the Nobel process for the better, as someone on the outside of it, how would you like to see it change as you continue to report on it?

Laurel: I would get rid of the three-person limit. Modern science is such a team effort. And in, in life sciences in particular, I mean, it’s like, it’s very unusual that Karikó did these experiments with her own hands. That would generally not be the case. And I think, I don’t know, a couple of years ago I spoke to someone who now works in Hollywood, who had been the first author—or middle author, I can’t recall—on one of the really critical papers in determining the heat-and-capsaicin receptor. And it was work that he had done as an undergraduate, you know, it was just wild.

I think that contributions like that, even if they’re not the decades-long sustained focus that we tend to reward professors for, are real. And, and, you know, often graduate students can have real insights that, that really move things forward. And so I would try to find a way to recognize more of the, the teamness of pretty much any kind of discovery.

Mitch: Well, that’s a great answer, Laurel. I don’t know that I have anything wise to say, but I’ll just say this: I have never been to one of the award ceremonies in Stockholm, but if I receive an invitation and can possibly go, I’ll go. I have a tuxedo, if that helps.

Gina: If anybody is listening from Stockholm.

Laurel: Anybody in Sweden?

Gina: OK, well, thank you, Mitch and Laurel, for coming on today to talk about the Nobel Prizes. Tell our listeners where they can find you on social media.

Mitch: You can usually find me in the Chicago C&EN news office, which is the basement of my home in the Skokie-Evanston area of Illinois. Or you can go on our website and find email addresses and phone numbers to reach me. I’m easily reachable. Google me. I’m the science writer, not the football player who shares my name.

Laurel: You can find me on the C&EN website or on Bluesky @LaurelOldach, O-l-d-a-c-h.

Gina: And you can find me on Twitter, or X, as @GinaCVitale, and [on] other platforms, I should have the same name.

Once again, you can find Mitch and Laurel’s coverage of the Nobel Prizes on C&EN’s website or in the Oct. 9th print issue of C&EN. We’ve put links in the show notes along with the episode credits. And we’d love to know what you think of C&EN Uncovered. You can share your feedback with us by emailing [email protected]. This has been C&EN Uncovered, a series from C&EN’s Stereo Chemistry. Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News. C&EN is an independent news outlet published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.


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