The road that neuroscientist Ardem Patapoutian ’90 took to the Nobel Prize was much longer than a thousand miles, but it did begin with one decisive step — the moment the 18-year-old and his brother left war-torn Beirut in 1986 bound for Los Angeles, hoping to attend college and prepare for careers.
A self-described daydreamer, Ardem was interested in science — which to him mostly meant medical school. He didn’t know that being a career research scientist might also be an option.
Born in Lebanon of Armenian descent, Patapoutian spent his first year in the U.S. working odd jobs, delivering pizza and writing for an Armenian newspaper to establish residency and thus qualify for in-state tuition at a California school. Homesick for his parents, he was determined to remain with his brother in Los Angeles. He applied to two universities, and one accepted him: UCLA. At the financial aid office, he learned about his options for tuition assistance. “I didn’t even know what a Pell Grant was,” he recalls.
The next year, his father and mother left Lebanon and settled in North Hollywood. Meanwhile, Patapoutian began daily commutes on the 405 Freeway. At UCLA, The Armenian Students’ Association helped him make the transition from Beirut to Los Angeles.
In some respects, Patapoutian was an extraordinary student, putting in long hours in a research lab. In other ways, however, he was a typical UCLA undergrad — rooting for the basketball team, playing arcade games, connecting with other students and having a bite at the Bombshelter Deli (now the Bombshelter Bistro). For studying, he preferred the geology library because it was quiet and uncrowded. In 1990, he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in molecular, cell and developmental biology.
Finding His Calling
To be admitted to medical school, Patapoutian knew he would need a letter of recommendation. Before finishing his undergraduate work, he decided to find a lab job where he could get to know, and be known by, a faculty member. He phoned professor after professor — these were the days before campus email — only to face repeated rejections. After 10 or 15 failures, he connected with UCLA molecular biologist Judith Lengyel ’67, M.A. ’68.
“Initially, she didn’t seem interested,” he remembers. However, Lengyel (who is now deceased) was intrigued by Patapoutian’s high GPA, and she finally agreed he could start working as a volunteer. He says, “I loved it, and pretty soon it turned into a paying job, which was fantastic. I would say it was one of the most important moments in my life, because it really changed my whole career. Without her, I don’t think I would have become a [research] scientist.”
Lengyel was known for her work on the development of organs in fruit fly (Drosophila) embryos. Her research opened the door to modern molecular approaches to investigating the development of organisms. Lengyel hired smart, self-motivated people, Patapoutian says, and gave them a lot of freedom. “I learned how she organized and ran her lab, and I’ve used that in my own laboratories,” he says. “So of course I consider her a mentor.”
Patapoutian effectively worked as a research technician for Lengyel’s graduate students and postdocs. Among them were Richard Baldarelli Ph.D. ’90 and Eiríkur Steingrímsson Ph.D. ’92, both of whom contributed to what Patapoutian remembers as “a tribe of international, curious oddball nerds.”
In the process, his ambition changed. Patapoutian says, “Two main events steered me away from medical school and into a Ph.D. program.” One was working in Lengyel’s lab, and the other was Bob Goldberg’s introductory molecular biology class, Biology 7. “[Goldberg] was a very passionate lecturer,” he says. “His excitement was really infectious.” For Patapoutian, it was an introduction to the entire topic of DNA. “He was just eye-opening, and I got really excited.”
“I’m a huge proponent of bringing diverse expertise of people together as a way to be innovative.”
Goldberg, a molecular biologist, specializes in plant genomics. In his long career at UCLA, he has received multiple research awards and teaching honors, including the Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award. Patapoutian never even tried to talk to Goldberg when he was an undergraduate. Recently, though, he has exchanged emails with him, telling Goldberg how important his teaching was. “He did so many little things to make his large classes seem like an intimate affair,” says Patapoutian.
Surprisingly, another course that made an impression on Patapoutian was a small class about philosophical trends in dance. He remembers that he was the only “science nerd” in a group of modern dance majors, all women. But the class introduced him to modern dance, which he has loved ever since. “It was just such an interesting class for me — so out of my domain,” he says. “Our points of view were so different.”
First Scientific Publication
Patapoutian earned more than a diploma in 1990; he emerged with an experience that helped propel him forward in his scientific career. With Lengyel, he was one of seven co-authors named on a scientific paper published in the July 13, 1990, edition of Cell. The title is as technical as the paper: “The Drosophila gene tailless is expressed at the embryonic termini and is a member of the steroid receptor superfamily.”
“It took me six to eight months to sequence the 1,800 or so bases of this gene,” Patapoutian remembers. “It was very hard work — lots of getting the small pieces and putting everything together.”
“Today, that could be done in less than one day,” he continues. “You would just send it out and get the sequence the next day. That’s how much science has changed.”
Another of the paper’s co-authors, faculty member John Merriam, remembers that Judy Lengyel had high standards for publication credit in her laboratory. She “did not give such honors lightly,” Merriam says. He also remembers Lengyel’s describing Patapoutian as “fiercely bright.”
Patapoutian takes pride in his first professional publication credit. “It was a lot of work,” he says, “and I got myself on a paper that’s actually made an impact in the field.”
A Laureate in Love With the Lab
Now a professor of neuroscience at Scripps Research (formerly Scripps Research Institute) in La Jolla and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Patapoutian — through a mixture of persistence, brilliance and a bit of chance — became an outstanding research scientist, sharing (with David Julius) the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The prize recognizes Patapoutian’s groundbreaking research that solved a long-standing mystery of how the body senses touch and other mechanical stimuli. His lab identified two ion channels that are essential for the sense of touch and the sensing of body position and motion. In further work, the channels have been shown to regulate blood pressure, respiration and urinary bladder control. “These receptors are the key to the door of understanding biology and disease,” Patapoutian says. The exploration continues.
Patapoutian set up his first independent lab at Scripps. “I’m a huge proponent of bringing diverse expertise of people together as a way to be innovative,” he says.
When someone applies to work in his lab, Patapoutian thinks about his own days as an immigrant who did not know the system very well.
“You come with a different first language, and that’s a major barrier for immigrants,” he says. “I feel passionately about getting research experience as a way to encourage underrepresented minorities and underprivileged students to get exposed to STEM.”
His undergraduate research experience in the Lengyel lab did more than set him on the path to a Ph.D.
“I was really fascinated by how science worked. Taking laboratory classes is very different than actually working in a laboratory, where free-flowing ideas of curiosity and observation drive everyday work,” he says. “I really fell in love with that.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine's April 2022 issue.