Six University of Delaware faculty members
with expertise in the areas of study that won this year’s Nobel Prizes
discussed the significance of the laureates’ work at an Oct. 29 public
event on campus.
Sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the annual Nobel Symposium consists of six short talks and an opportunity for the audience to ask questions.
The event is held each year as a way to give interested members of
the UD community and the public more in-depth information about the
laureates’ work than is typically found in general news stories about
The speakers are faculty members who conduct research and scholarship in areas closely connected to the prize-winning work.
Following are the 2015 prizes highlighted at the symposium.
John Jungck, professor of biological sciences and mathematical
sciences, spoke about the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which
was given to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura for their discovery
of a new drug to treat diseases caused by roundworm parasites and to
Youyou Tu for her discovery of a new drug to treat malaria.
“This work had tremendous impact,” Jungck said, citing statistics on
the high rates of debilitating illness and death from diseases caused by
parasites, including mosquito-borne malaria. Such diseases particularly
afflict the world’s poorest people and can be especially deadly to
“Most of our [U.S.] health budget gets spent on diseases of old white
men” such as heart disease, Jungck said, but the global threat to human
health is much greater from diseases such as malaria, river blindness
and lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis — the diseases
that the Nobel winners targeted.
Parasitic diseases are difficult to treat without harming the
patient, and drugs that work for a time often lose their effectiveness,
so the development of new therapies is crucial, Jungck said.
He also noted that Tu’s work is remarkable because she conducted her
research at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing,
rather than at a top-tier academic research facility, and because she is
the first Chinese researcher working in China to win a Nobel Prize in
the sciences. Although some observers have called her Nobel a victory
for traditional medicine, Jungck said that Tu was inspired by that
tradition but that she developed the new drug through rigorous
Mark Bowden, instructor in English and Distinguished Writer in
Residence, discussed Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, who won the
literature prize for what the Nobel Committee called “her polyphonic
writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
A working journalist during the Soviet era, Alexievich “is easily the
most self-effacing writer to ever have received the Nobel Prize for
Literature,” Bowden said. He praised her method of telling stories
directly through the words of those who experienced particular, often
traumatic, events and not by creating her own narrative from those
“What she does is collect voices,” Bowden said, although she “filters
them through her own sensibilities” and so may alter the words she
quotes rather than strictly following traditional journalistic
Her books, only two of them translated into English, deal with such
subjects as the consequences of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl,
the experiences of soldiers during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan
from 1979-89 and everyday life for individuals under Soviet rule.
The “genius” of Alexievich’s approach, Bowden said, is that by
telling her stories through the words of many different people, she
“creates a chorus … a testimony of many, many witnesses” whose accounts
often contradict the authoritarian messages of the state.
This 2015 prize marks the first time the Nobel in literature has been
awarded to a journalist and the first time it’s gone to a nonfiction
writer since Winston Churchill received it in 1953, Bowden said.
Adrienne Lucas, associate professor of economics, described the work
done by Angus Deaton, awarded this year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in
Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for his analysis of
consumption, poverty and welfare.
She began her talk by showing examples of two unnamed countries and a
few economic statistics for each. One had a somewhat higher average
annual income, leading to an assumption that its residents were better
off. But a look at other measures found that those residents also had
much higher rates of poverty and child mortality, as well as a much
lower life expectancy; the higher average income had been created by a
windfall of oil revenue that enriched only a handful of citizens.
Lucas said Deaton posed the question: “Where is well-being higher?”
and, as in the example, recognized the need to look beyond broad
statistical averages and instead to “examine much more closely the
individual life experiences of people.”
Much of his work focused on individual consumption patterns as a way
to understand how consumers distribute their spending, how much of
society’s income is spent or saved, and how to best measure and analyze
wealth and poverty.
Deaton sought to understand those patterns in order to develop
economic policies that will promote welfare and reduce poverty. To that
end, he developed a Household Survey to measure wealth and poverty in a
“This transformed the field of development economics from a purely
theoretical approach to one that uses testable, empirical data,” Lucas
Thomas Gaisser, Martin A. Pomerantz Chair of Physics and Astronomy,
spoke about the Nobel Prize in Physics, given to Takaaki Kajita and
Arthur B. McDonald for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which
showed that neutrinos have mass.
Gaisser told the audience that there are three different types, known
as “flavors,” of neutrinos — subatomic particles that have no charge
and rarely interact with other particles. Electron neutrinos, one of
those flavors, are produced in the sun through nuclear fusion.
Over years of measuring electron neutrinos in the atmosphere, Gaisser
said, physicists were finding less than half the number they expected.
Solving the puzzle of what happened to those missing neutrinos is what
led to this year’s Nobel Prize selection.
Around the year 2000, Kajita discovered that neutrinos he was
measuring at the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan were changing their
identities while in the atmosphere. Around the same time, McDonald,
working at Canada’s Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, showed that neutrinos
were not disappearing after leaving the sun but, instead, were arriving
at the observatory with different identities.
Because these scientists’ experiments demonstrated neutron
oscillation — the transformation from one flavor into another — they
also showed that neutrons have a tiny amount of mass. Previously,
neutrinos were considered to have no mass.
“For particle physics, this was a historic discovery,” the Nobel
Prize organization said in a news releasing announcing the award. “The
discovery has changed our understanding of the innermost workings of
matter and can prove crucial to our view of the universe.”
Muqtedar Khan, associate professor of political science and
international relations, discussed the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded this
year to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet.
The quartet — made up of leaders of trade union, business, lawyer and
human rights organizations — received the prize for what the Nobel
Committee called its “decisive contribution to the building of a
pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution”
that launched the region’s Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. While many
nations that were part of the Arab Spring have had setbacks including
collapsed states and a return to military rule, Tunisia has been praised
for its relatively peaceful transition to democracy and stability.
But, Khan noted in his talk, much of the commentary about the 2015
Peace Prize has been critical as well, pointing to the current Tunisian
government’s questionable record on individual freedom and economic
“The [Nobel Peace Prize] Committee sometimes gives the prize more for the promise than for what is delivered,” Khan said.
The quartet’s most powerful member was the labor union faction, he
said, which brought its experience and success at negotiating to the
process of establishing a constitution and peaceful democratic
development after Tunisia’s previous authoritarian government was
overthrown. The biggest accomplishment of the group was its ability to
bring about compromise from different parts of society, a rarity in the
Middle East, Khan said.
Although Tunisia has now had democratic elections and two peaceful
transitions of power, the quartet also “represented the interests of the
secular elite, the former regime and the economic elite,” Khan said. In
the end, he said, the Nobel Peace Prize award may undermine long-term
prospects for democracy in Tunisia.
Zhihao Zhuang, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry,
described the work of Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar,
recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their mechanistic studies
of DNA repair.
“Our genomic DNA is under constant assault,” Zhuang said, with damage
coming from such sources as smoking, ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the
sun, carcinogenic substances and the molecule’s own inherent
instability that spontaneously causes changes to a cell’s genome.
Although scientists once believed that DNA was highly stable, Lindahl
demonstrated that it decays at a rapid rate.
“But, most importantly, we do have a number of repair mechanisms,”
Zhuang said. Those mechanisms allow cells to monitor and repair damaged
DNA and safeguard the genetic information it carries.
This year’s laureates have mapped how several of these repair systems
function at a detailed molecular level. Sancar has mapped what’s called
nucleotide excisions repair, which cells use to undo UV damage to DNA,
and Modrich has demonstrated how the cell corrects errors that occur
during cell division.
In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee said that this work has
provided fundamental knowledge of how a living cell functions.
Looking forward, Zhuang said, the research holds promise for new
cancer therapies that would target specific DNA repair mechanisms in
what could become an example of personalized medicine.