Nobel winner emerged from Riverdale High School and moved on up
Jack Szostak (top right) as seen in 1964 Riverdale High School yearbook. Courtesy photo.
When Jack Szostak, who shared this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W. Greider, entered his junior high class at Riverdale in Pierrefonds in 1964, he arrived mid-way through the academic year, was younger than everyone else in the room, and wore fairly heavy glasses.
“He was a very special student,” recalled his homeroom teacher Don Hall. “He asked a lot of questions, I couldn’t answer them all.”
It was not that Szostak became the brains among a group that was interested in less academic matters.
It was quite the contrary, in fact, according to other students at the time. “Close to half of that class would qualify for MENSA,” quipped Peter Tammark, whose picture appears in the 1968 Riverdale High School yearbook, on the same page as that of Szostak.
Yet, something seemed to set the latter apart.
The son of a Canadian Air Force officer, Szostak had spent a lot of his childhood shuttling back and forth between Ottawa and Montreal, as the demands of his father’s job dictated. “Do you go ahead or stay behind?” Szostak, now 56, reminisced of the choice he was given at the time, whenever he changed schools. Given his natural aptitude toward his studies, it did not seem like much of a choice at all.
On his very first day, Hall remembered, Szostak already created an impression with one of his difficult questions. “Mr. Hall,” Szostak asked, “I know that light bends as it goes through the gravitational field of the Earth, but doesn’t that make light matter?”
It is a question that has long since stopped bothering modern scientists, but the answer, which Hall had to go seek out by asking the head of the high school’s science department, Neville Shaw, was far from obvious back then. “I suspect (Szostak) knew the answer to that one,” Hall said, but the teacher delivered it in class the next time, regardless. “While energy is concentrated, it acts as matter. That is the answer, Jack.”
That interaction would become routine, with an eager classroom hearing out Szostak’s questions and then anticipating Hall’s response. “Jack’s got another one for you” was soon a frequent refrain of Hall to Shaw, who would knowingly smile before replying. “I learned from Jack as he learned from me,’ Hall said. The Riverdale teacher would go on to host many leadership seminars, as well as become Dean of Students at Dawson College. The lesson of humility he learned in the West Island high school was one he would impart upon aspiring leaders he would teach.
Szostak said he tried never to think about the fact he was younger than his other colleagues. “I was just trying to learn as many things as possible,” he said.
If there was one possible area where he may not have been trying, it would have been gym class, according to one of his closest friends at the time, Joachim Sparkuhl. “We used to go to the back of the gym and pretend we were lifting weights,” Sparkuhl, who now works in Toronto as a biotechnology consultant, told The Chronicle.
Sharing Szostak’s interests in science, technology and philosophy, Sparkuhl recalled having long discussions with the precocious teen. "We used to talk about things like winning the Nobel Prize," Sparkuhl said with a laugh.
The two graduated high school and moved on to study biology at McGill University. The main difference between them, of course, was Szostak’s age. He was 15 when he started there. “And he left with his BsC by the time he was 19,” gushed the university’s media relations director, Douglas Sweet. “We’re dealing with a real genius here.”
It is a thought that Szostak tries to not pay too much heed to.
As a professor in genetics at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, U.S.A., he is surrounded by a number of extremely bright students. “It keeps me very humble,” he said.
Still, his old classmates maintain they saw a spark in him from the very beginning. “I knew that he would be doing something really good,” Tammark said.
Bartha Maria Knoppers, a leading national expert on bio-ethics at McGill University, who also happened to have attended Riverdale at the same time as Szostak, remembers him as being a very lively classmate to have discussions with. “I think it’s a great honour,” she said of his winning the Nobel.
Throughout his late teen years spent in university, Szostak continued trying to acquire as much knowledge as he possibly could.
In one case, Sparkuhl recalled, the two of them even circumvented academic authorities to be able to do so. Despite their fascination with robotics, as biology students they were not allowed into the university’s computer labs, so they devised a false identity to sneak in during summer hours. “We used the pseudonym Hari Seldon,” Sparkuhl said, borrowing the name of famous science-fiction author Isaac Asimov’s protagonist from the Foundation trilogy of novels. “No one ever caught on,” he said with a laugh.
It was in 1980 that Szostak, by that time a professor at Harvard Medical School, began the work with his two co-workers that wound up earning him his Nobel nearly 30 years later.
Together with Blackburn and Greider, Szostak discovered that telomeres, the DNA sequences that cap off chromosomes, the molecules that carry human genes, also protect them from degradation. They also discovered that telomeres are produced by the enzyme telomerase. “We’re very hopeful,” Szostak said, of potential applications for the discovery that could help cure cancer, or other age-related diseases.
Indeed, according to the Nobel Committee’s official website, “the discoveries by Blackburn, Greider and Szostak have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies.”
The potential for therapies lies in the fact diseased cells tend to behave differently than normal cells. Whereas healthy cells do not divide frequently, for example, cancer cells continue dividing, Szostak noted. Research conducted by scientists after the three laureates discovered telomerase indicated that cancer cells produce a surplus of that enzyme, the Nobel Committee website notes.
Therefore, one possible way of treating cancer may be by “eradicating telomerase,” the website says. “Of course, that’s all very far off yet,” said Szostak, in keeping with his humility.
Two weeks after he was awarded the prize, the reality of it has started to settle for the scientist. “It’s gradually sinking in,” he said, adding the announcement had been a nice surprise for him, his wife and two children.
Just as, in university years, Szostak studied biology but also dabbled in computers, his team’s current field of study is far away from what earned them their Nobel. “How did biology emerge from chemistry?” That is the question that pre-occupies his time now, he explained. He and his team are mapping the origins of life on the planet.
Whereas he remains, as always, humble about any potential greater meaning to that work, Sparkuhl, who kept in sporadic touch with Szostak after university and has been following his scientific advancements, is much less so. “I really don’t know what (the Nobel Committee) are going to do for an encore,” he said. “They’re going to have to give him another one.”
That kind of feat would put Szostak in the company of a select few people in history, including chemist and physicist Marie Curie. “It’s a real teacher’s story,” Hall said of his interactions with a much younger Szostak all those years ago. "Sometimes (as a teacher),” he added, “it feels like you're chopping with the other side of an axe, and you're putting all that time and energy into it, but you don't really see all the chips fly." "This time, holy mackerel, did you see the chip fly."