Updated with comments from William Bertozzi Oct. 7 at 1:20 p.m.
Under Carolyn Bertozzi’s name, the Lexington High School class of 1984 yearbook lists many quintessential teenage activities. “Soccer, Softball, musical accompanist, Girls’ Ensemble, Jazz Piano, Executive House Council” are just a few that suggest a student with a lively life beyond the classroom. Bertozzi also singled out a teacher for acknowledgment, writing “Tnx Mrs. P” – a reference to Sandi Peaslee, the legendary former Lexington High School music teacher.
None of those affiliations reveal that Bertozzi was also a STEM luminary in the making. But early Wednesday morning, in the culmination of a career marked by brilliance, the Stanford professor became the eighth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for developing click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.” She shares the 2022 award from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless.
By pioneering the new field of bioorthogonal chemistry, Bertozzi has made it easier for researchers to study the interactions of molecules without disrupting their natural processes, which has key applications for medical advances.
“It’s a chemistry that allows two molecules to come together, and form a bond, even when they’re surrounded by all the stuff that you would find in human cells, and even in the human body,” she said in a Stanford tiny lecture. “And that’s a pretty tough place to do chemistry – but bioorthogonal chemistry allows us to do this!”
With this kind of chemistry, “we can make new medicines; we can target medicines to the right tissues; and we can see biological molecules in living organisms for the first time,” she said in the lecture. The Nobel Prize press release specified that using bioorthogonal chemistry, “researchers have improved the targeting of cancer pharmaceuticals, which are now being tested in clinical trials.”
Decades earlier, as a Harvard undergraduate with a pre-med bent, Bertozzi recalled taking Organic Chemistry as a requirement for her biology major – and unexpectedly falling in love with the subject. “Surprisingly, I found the class to be elegant, and beautiful, and just intrinsically understandable,” she said in a Stanford video following her award. Yet when she wasn’t studying organic chemistry, Bertozzi found time to continue pursuing her passion for music by playing in the band Bored of Education with future Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.
The Harvard Crimson reported that Bertozzi is the first college alumna to win a Nobel prize.
Lexington, as the hometown to many professors at top academic institutions like Harvard and MIT, has ties to more than a few Nobel laureates. At least nine men who grew up or have lived in Lexington have won Nobel prizes across the fields of Physics, Economics, Medicine and Chemistry. MIT Professor Mario Molina won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 while he lived in Lexington.
But Bertozzi is the first woman from Lexington to win any Nobel prize.
An inclination toward the sciences runs in the family. Bertozzi’s father, William Bertozzi, is a retired MIT physics professor; he was the first person Bertozzi called when she received the news.
“Not every father has a daughter who wins a Nobel Prize,” William Bertozzi said in an interview with LexObserver Friday afternoon. “I’m still floating in the clouds a little bit…and I’m very proud of her.” He added that “I’m always proud of my three daughters, because they’re also very good human beings.”
His elder daughter Andrea Bertozzi, who teaches mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, was the only girl in high-level math classes from a young age, he recalled — and was recognized by her teachers as the best.
The Bertozzis lived in Lexington for about 40 years, William Bertozzi recalled. He now lives in Los Angeles to be closer to two of his daughters, and sold the house he built on Castle Road just this summer. Still, former Lexington neighbors have reached out to congratulate him, as have many of his former colleagues and students from MIT.
Even though his daughter’s achievement was “a wonderful surprise,” in one sense, it wasn’t a surprise; William Bertozzi said that when he attended a celebration for a different prize Carolyn recently won, the 2018 Nobel laureate in Chemistry, Frances Arnold, had predicted to him that his daughter would win a Nobel prize someday. “I’ll have to send her an email telling her ‘congratulations, you were right,'” he said.
William Bertozzi’s only regret is that his wife of 65 years cannot celebrate with the family. Norma Bertozzi passed away last October. “It was great partnership that she and I had,” he said, “and she was a great mother for [our] three daughters.”
So far, he and his daughters have not yet had the chance to get together in person. “We’re all anticipating somehow or other getting together,” he said. “Maybe in Stockholm.”
Bertozzi’s achievement brought joy to many throughout the Lexington community. Local leaders from Select Board member Suzie Barry, who graduated high school with Bertozzi, to Superintendent Julie Hackett shared words of congratulations.
Beyond her academic prowess, Bertozzi is also widely recognized and beloved as a mentor and champion for diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM, particularly for women and LGBTQ community members. Catherine Wang, another LHS graduate who worked in Bertozzi’s lab at Stanford, was one of over 100 current and former lab members celebrating Bertozzi’s recognition this week.
Bertozzi told WBUR that if she had the chance to speak to a young woman at Lexington High School or in the local library in Lexington, rather than giving them particular advice, she would listen. “I would be asking them to tell me, ‘Where do you want to be in the future, and what’s your plan, and what are your ideas?’ Bertozzi said. “Because it’s the students that are their age that are the dreamers.”
Multiple attempts to reach Bertozzi for comment by press time were unsuccessful.