Maryland's Nobel laureates

October 04, 2006

Who's to say what compels men to explore such phenomena as the nascent light of the universe or the on/off switch in genes?

But the curiosity and impulse of scientists John C. Mather and Andrew Z. Fire are less the issue today than their intellectual persistence and pursuits, which earned each a Nobel prize in their respective fields of physics and medicine. Both pursued their groundbreaking discoveries in Maryland, individual achievements duly honored. But their success also should be celebrated collectively as it reinforces Maryland's reputation as a state that supports science and technology and the professions they promote.

The prizes, awarded on two consecutive days, were a double dose of good news for our scientific community. Mr. Mather, a NASA scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, shared the physics prize with George F. Smoot, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Mr. Fire, presently a professor at Stanford University, shared his Nobel with Craig C. Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The wake-up calls from Sweden got the phones ringing early at the Mather and Fire homes, and they kept ringing for hours. For Mr. Mather, the first NASA scientist to win a Nobel, the prestigious award followed years of work as project manager of NASA's COBE satellite. Mr. Fire was a biologist at the Carnegie Institute's Department of Embryology in north Baltimore in 1997 when he performed an experiment on roundworms that led to a genetic breakthrough.

Mr. Mather's research helped confirm the big-bang theory of the universe and enhanced a broader investigation of galaxies and stars. Mr. Fire's work has propelled biologists into a whole new sphere of research and holds the promise of therapeutic discoveries for cancer and other diseases. As they have built on others' work, so too others will build on theirs. That's the collective payoff of individual achievement.

It was only last month that another scientist in Maryland received national recognition. Joseph Gall, of the Carnegie Institute's Department of Embryology, was a recipient of a Lasker Award, the highest prize conveyed in the United States for medical research.

That trifecta of honors should reap other benefits for Maryland's scientific community and encourage investment in its work.

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