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USC toasts its newest Nobel laureate

Perkins_Robertby Robert Perkins
An early morning call leads to a historic day for USC’s Arieh Warshel.
An early morning call leads to a historic day for USC’s Arieh Warshel.

When Tami Warshel was awoken by a 2 a.m. phone call Oct. 9, she hoped the person on the other end would have a Swedish accent.

“I picked up the phone, and I hoped in my heart that this is it,” she recalled.

When she heard the voice, she knew her husband, USC Professor Arieh Warshel, had won the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

She watched for a reaction as she handed the phone to her husband of 47 years, the Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“I don’t think he knew what to say to me,” she said. “But I understood right away. You could see the happiness.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry to Warshel and two colleagues for developing the key principles behind computer simulations that are now indispensable in the study of chemical reactions.

Warshel, who started as an assistant professor at USC in 1976, has spent the past three-and-a-half decades pushing the boundaries of computational chemistry. Now the world would know about his life’s work, something most people have a hard time understanding.

“It took time for the [scientific] community to accept this approach,” he said. “To get both the recognition and the realization that this is the way to ask this question … it felt really, really great.”

There was no going back to sleep after that call — the phone didn’t stop ringing as both the press and well-wishers called for interviews and to offer congratulations.

“It’s a great honor for our university, for our community and for the Trojan nation,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias during a press conference held later that morning at Town & Gown. “It’s a great honor, but also it’s a testament to all the investment we’ve been making as a university in the area of research, especially in the areas of science and technology.”

Distinguished Professor Arieh Warshel

Distinguished Professor Arieh Warshel (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

One of those offering his congratulations was George Olah, USC’s other professor to receive a Nobel Prize while at the university. Olah is Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the holder of the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry.

The Warshels’ daughter, Yael, a USC alumna, coincidentally was the Daily Trojan photographer who took the photo of Olah when he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1994. Now, 19 years later, Olah was at Town & Gown to cheer on his colleague for the same recognition.

Warshel told reporters that his research was driven in large part by his curiosity to understand enzymes and their role in the body.

“This shows the value of curiosity-directed research,” said USC Dornsife Dean Steve A. Kay. “And it shows the value of an education at USC. Students here were able to participate in this research. USC has arrived at the world stage of science.”

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