Nobel winner is a draw for top Yale College science applicants

Blake Smith had never been photographed beside a Nobel laureate. On a recent visit to Yale, he saw his opening and took it.

“Who has a chance to do that?” the Long Island high school student marveled after a recent photo-op with Yale professor Thomas Steitz, a winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for chemistry. “That was one of the perks of this whole weekend. He was very accessible.”

It was Feb. 20, mid-afternoon, and Steitz had just made the final pitch for Yale at the end of a three-day program for about 100 teenage applicants to Yale College. The program, “YES Weekend” (for Yale Engineering and Science), offers a group of outstanding high school science and engineering students an in-depth preview of what studying at Yale might be like.

Visiting students spent their Presidents’ Day weekend at the symphony, in classes, touring laboratories, meeting with professors, sleeping in residential colleges and palling around with each other. As a finale, they gathered for some face time with the Nobel-winning researcher — whom Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel introduced as the day’s “rock star.”

Steitz, who has been at Yale since 1970, won the Nobel for helping to discern the structure and function of the ribosome, a key player in protein production. He shared the prize with two researchers in the United Kingdom and Israel.

In his presentation to the students, Steitz was careful to keep the broad scientific interests of his audience in mind: “I’ll try to keep it a little general,” he promised.

He then went on, over the course of about an hour, to blend basic descriptions of his academic research with photos from the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, plus color commentary on the associated people and parties.

“I got to sit next to the crown-princess of Sweden,” he said. “She was a Yalie.”

At one point in the talk, which was studded with animated movies about ribosomes set to music, including the “Star Wars” theme song, Steitz even performed a dance. When it was through, he noted that ribosomes are major targets for antibiotics.

Amidst all the fun, Steitz emphasized two serious points about scientific research: He urged respect for basic research — the hunt for knowledge independent of obvious or certain practical applications. And he said success in science requires a collaborative spirit.

“Good science requires an interactive community,” he said. “It’s not just one lab, it’s not just one person.”

As if to underscore the point, he sprinkled his presentation with photos of his colleagues, grad students and postdocs, typically at play, often at Steitz’ waterfront home in Branford — with a giant striped bass, on a sailboat, at the beach.

At the ensuing coffee-and-cookies reception, Steitz barely had time to set down his bag when eager students appeared with cameras and questions. He posed for all comers and talked with those confident enough to engage him.

“I talked with him about alternative (gene) splicing,” said Smith, the student from Long Island, “which is what his wife does.”

Steitz is married to Joan A. Steitz, also a distinguished Yale scientist. They are both Sterling Professors of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.

Jeremiah Quinlan, deputy dean of admissions, found the scene perfectly illustrative: “Professor Steitz helped us bring to life the limitless possibilities of science at Yale.”

Possibilities that, for a lucky few, just might include working alongside a Nobel Prize winner.

Said Steitz, “I have two undergraduates in the laboratory.”