The University of Wisconsin lost one of its most storied researchers when professor Har Gobind Khorana, former director at the UW Department of Biochemistry and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, died last Wednesday at the age of 89.
“He created an all-new field,” Aseem Ansari, a professor of biochemistry at UW, said. “He chemically synthesized a gene that underlies the whole field of synthetic biology. The chemistry behind the ability to synthesize DNA was developed by him and the members at his lab.”
Khorana, who worked at UW from 1960 to 1970 before moving to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work conducted at the university. According to a statement from UW, Khorana served as a co-director of the UW Institute of Enzyme Research and was a member of the Department of Biochemistry on campus.
Although Khorana will be remembered for his major impact in the world of genetic science, that was not his only achievement, Ansari said.
“More importantly, he did science between disciplines,” Ansari said. “He took tools and ideas from a different science to bear on another problem.”
Khorana visited the UW campus for the last time during a 2009 symposium held in honor of the 40th anniversary of his Nobel Prize win. The gathering drew important researchers from the field as well as his former students and colleagues.
Ansari said the event drew nearly an 80 percent acceptance rate from invitees.
Apart from his legacy of scientific achievement, Khorana left his mark on another facet of education with the Khorana Scholars Program, an exchange program between Indian university students and UW.
“We spoke for a very long time – about a year – about how to do this,” Ansari, who is also one of the founders of the program, said. “We sent UW faculty to rural India, one of the poorest parts of the world. Over the past four years, we’ve been bringing in [Indian] students [to study at UW].”
According to a UW statement, the program has recently expanded to include students from other Midwestern universities as well as other schools including MIT and Harvard University.
Ansari said in addition to his many achievements in his field and contributions to academia, he will also be memorialized as a mentor.
“Scientific discoveries aside, it is the people that you mentor and how they go on to do amazing things of their own [that is important]. The new generation is a tribute to that. His legacy is, of course, to science, but also to the people that he trained,” he said.
The world has lost a great scientist and person, Ansari added.
“He was a very intense, earnest individual,” Ansari reflected on his meetings with Khorana. “He cared very deeply about people and about science. Always engaged intellectually, always asking interesting questions.”