Carolyn Bertozzi’s life changed suddenly on October 4, 2022 when she got a call that announced that she had won the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Instructed not to share the announcement outside of her tightest inner circle, the first person Bertozzi called was her father, William Bertozzi, a retired physics professor. “He’s 91 and, of course, he was just overjoyed,” said Bertozzi. “And then he called my sisters for me, and we’ve been texting.”
Carolyn Bertozzi grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, the second of three girls. Her father was a nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her mother a secretary in MIT’s physics department.
Perhaps calling her family first was an impulse engendered by her Italian American ancestry. Carolyn’s father’s four siblings were all born in Italy. And like so many striving Italian immigrants they heartily believed in education; they all went into some branch of science and they excelled. It was expected that Carolyn and her sisters would do well in school, and Carolyn did, but she also played soccer in high school and was recruited to Harvard with what would be at any other school an athletic scholarship. Despite her talent in sports, she found soccer too time-consuming and quit sports to devote herself to academics. Brilliantly, one might point out.
Bertozzi is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a professor of chemistry at Stanford University, and she has won the Nobel Prize just a few days before her 56th birthday next Monday. Also of note is that she is the only female scientist to have been awarded a science Nobel prize this year, after an all-male line-up in 2021.
Her recent efforts include synthesis of chemical tools to study cell surface sugars called glycans, and how they impact diseases such as cancer, inflammation, and viral infections like COVID-19.
She shares the $10 million Swedish kronor (about $1 million USD) prize equally with Morten Meldal, professor at University of Copenhagen; and K. Barry Sharpless, PhD ’68, professor at Scripps Research “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.” The Nobel Prize in chemistry is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Bertozzi was recognized for founding the field of bioorthogonal chemistry, a set of chemical reactions that allow researchers to study molecules and their interactions in living things without interfering with natural biological processes. Bertozzi’s lab first developed the methods in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, her lab and others have used them to answer fundamental questions about the role of sugars in biology, to solve practical problems, such as developing better tests for infectious diseases, and to create a new biological pharmaceutical that can better target tumors, which is now being tested in clinical trials.