Nobel Prize Winner Ardem Patapoutian Delivers Grilione Seminar Lecture to SJSU Students and Faculty: “How Do You Feel?”

by | May 10, 2023 | Academics

2021 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine Ardem Patapoutian (center) with Katie Wilkinson (second from left), professor of biological sciences, and current and former students from the Wilkinson Lab. Photo by Cassandra Paul.

On a rainy Friday afternoon in May, San José State students were treated to a high honor: an hour-long lecture from the 2021 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, Ardem Patapoutian, professor of neuroscience at Scripps Research. Patapoutian, engaging, humble and refreshingly down-to-earth, delivered a talk entitled “How Do You Feel? The Molecules That Sense Touch” to an audience of students, faculty, undergraduate and graduate researchers, and staff.  

Patapoutian, who collaborated with Katie Wilkinson, professor of biological sciences, and the undergraduate and graduate researchers in her lab on a groundbreaking study published in Science Magazine in January 2023, said he was “very happy” to be at San José State. 

“Dr. Wilkinson has been such an important collaborator for me and my lab,” he said. “And it’s really inspiring to me to find out that [her research students] are mainly undergraduate students and master’s students.” 

He also draws inspiration from the students’ diverse backgrounds: “I know there are a lot of young kids [at San José State] who are immigrants like me,” he said. “To come and meet them and chat with them and to show them we can come from unappreciated backgrounds and make it — this is one of the things that’s important to me.”

He began his speech with the striking image of President Obama in the Oval Office leaning over so a Black child could touch his hair. Patapoutian invoked this image as a representation of the importance of touch, both affective (the touch of a loved one or admired person) and proprioceptive (a lesser-known aspect of touch, which accounts for our ability to know where our limbs are in space without looking at them). 

He then summed up his research as an interest in the “enigmatic touch/pain sensation,” wondering, “How do we [as humans] do this at a molecular level?” His talk began to answer this question, including details about his research into proteins and ion channels linked to touch. He discussed his lab’s work with patient data from clinical settings and the research into plants, which have their own sense of touch which enables them to sense and move around harder soil to extend their roots in more friendly ground.

Patapoutian ended his speech with advice for students who hoped to become, as one student put it, “great researchers and great scientists.”

“Find something you’re really passionate about,” he said. “If you find that, the rest falls into place.”

Ardem Patapoutian discusses his work with SJSU students.

Ardem Patapoutian discusses his work with SJSU students after his talk. Photo by Katie Wilkinson.

For their part, the students didn’t seem to need much urging in this direction. Sydney Cortez, ‘23 Biology, said that the talk “meant so much” to her as a first-generation child of immigrants. She echoed Patapoutian’s advice and his passion: “I really love science,” she said. “I could never think of doing anything else.”

His lecture was absolutely wonderful,” Nasrin Indris, ’26 Biology, echoed. “I’m a first-year student and this is so inspiring. I’m really excited to continue learning and hopefully follow in his footsteps.”

Malcolm Harris, ’24 Psychology, an undergraduate researcher in the VanHoven Lab of Developmental Neurogenetics, loved the lecture’s details about neurophysiology and neurobiology, adding, “I had my mouth open the whole time. I was blown away.” 

He also appreciated the significance of a Nobel Prize winner speaking at SJSU. “When you hear about people who win these prizes, it can feel out of touch sometimes,” he stated. “So to have him here presenting and collaborating with a lab on campus is really awe-inspiring.”

Learn more about the Grilione Seminars at SJSU and other College of Science events here.