Nobel Prizes go to alumni Robert Lefkowitz and Alvin Roth

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Many of Lefkowitz’s discoveries were made while he was working closely with his fellow Nobel recipient Brian K. Kobilka, who was a postdoctoral researcher in Lefkowitz’s laboratory in the 1980s. Together, they identified genes that contain the DNA blueprints for several cell receptors, each being sensitive to a specific hormone, neurotransmitter, or growth factor. This gave them clues about the structure and function of the receptors.

It was for their role in characterizing “G protein–coupled receptors,” the largest class of cell receptors in the human body, that Lefkowitz and Kobilka received the Nobel. Their research led to the discovery of more than a thousand receptors and ushered in a new era of drug development. Today, nearly half of all drugs target G protein-coupled receptors.

Lefkowitz, who serves on the College of Physicians and Surgeons board of visitors, reflected on his student days here while speaking at an alumni event in 2011. As a medical student, Lefkowitz said, he never considered a career in research: “To me, medicine was like a priesthood. I always thought it was the highest and noblest thing you could do in life.”

And although he would soon become “addicted to data” and convinced that advancing medical knowledge was his calling, Lefkowitz still feels that “being a physician is the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “When I write down my occupation, I still write down ‘physician.’”

Better matchmaking

For parents in most US cities, getting a child into a good public school requires careful strategizing. That’s because districts use a school-assignment system whose results can be manipulated. Here’s how it works: parents are asked to submit an ordered list of their preferences. Every school then accepts or rejects those students who listed the school as their first choice. Children who get rejected by their top-choice school are considered by their backup schools only after those schools have looked at all of the children who picked them as a first choice. The result is that parents with unrealistic expectations about a child’s chances of getting into a popular school may get the child bumped all the way down to one of their district’s least desirable schools, as even the ones in between fill up. Meanwhile, an unexceptional student may secure a spot in a highly-rated school if the parent picks, say, the district’s third- or fourth-best school as a top choice.

Is there a better way?

Alvin E. Roth has devoted his career to solving such problems. An economist who studied operations research at Columbia’s engineering school, he is an expert in an area of macroeconomic research called matching theory, which addresses how central planners can distribute resources efficiently and fairly. His work builds upon mathematical principles developed in the 1950s and 1960s by Lloyd S. Shapley, with whom Roth shares the Nobel. Shapley’s research, while groundbreaking, was abstract and often whimsical: his most influential paper describes how a group of men and women can schedule dates among themselves in a way that speedily pairs each person with someone they can be assured is the most attractive person who will have them. Roth’s achievement has been to find more pressing real-world problems to which Shapley’s algorithms can be applied.

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