As a kid growing up in Orange County, UC Berkeley biology professor Randy Schekman remembers collecting a jar of dirty pond scum from a nearby riverbed, sliding it under the lens of his toy microscope and being transfixed by the tiny, cellular world he saw.
That fascination led Schekman to an illustrious career: a Berkeley biology professorship and a 2013 Nobel Prize for groundbreaking research on cellular membranes.
On Saturday, May 14, he’ll give the keynote address at Berkeley’s 2022 campuswide commencement ceremony and will try to impart that inspiration and wonder he felt looking into that toy microscope to the thousands of graduates gathered on the field of Memorial Stadium.
“My journey really began out of my curiosity (about) the world around me. I was just a kid who loved science,” said Schekman. “There’s just such variety in life and always new things to explore. People can tend to be too conservative in what they choose to pursue. But it has served me well to do things that others are not doing.”
“One is limited only by one’s imagination, not by what anybody has done before you,” he added.
Schekman was selected as the keynote speaker by the student-run Senior Class Council because of his contributions to both the campus and scientific communities.
“Our class, having been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic since our sophomore year of college, admires his accomplishments within the realms of medicine, such as microbiology and immunology,” said Senior Class Council President Brianna Rivera. “We were also thrilled to secure such an accomplished individual who is also closely tied to the Berkeley community.”
Senior Class Council Vice President Kathleen Crosby added, “His research, being of immense value to humankind, motivates us all to be change-makers and trailblazers in each of our individual fields.”
A proud product of California’s public school system, Schekman was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, but moved to Southern California when he was 10. Schekman said he would often pore over issues of Science magazine that he’d find in his school’s library.
He remembers mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs around his suburban, Orange County neighborhood to save up for his first real microscope: A Bausch and Lomb student professional microscope.
“My parents found that microscope in my childhood closet, and it now sits in the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, as an artifact that represents my particular research,” said Schekman. “It’s really mind-boggling.”
After getting his undergraduate degree at UCLA and completing a Ph.D. program at Stanford University in 1975 for research in DNA replication with Nobel Prize-winner Arthur Kornberg, Schekman applied to teach at several universities across the country.
He chose Berkeley.
“When I came to visit the biochemistry department, I found the faculty and the spirit of the place to be very appealing,” he recalled. “It felt perfect for me because it was a mixture of classical biochemistry and more modern genetic approaches. And what I wanted to do, I knew they would embrace and support. They wouldn’t get in my way. And that proved to be true.”
In 1976, Schekman began to map out the machinery by which yeast cells sort, package and deliver proteins via membrane bubbles to the cell’s surface, secreting proteins important in yeast communication and mating. In the 1980s and ’90s, his findings enabled the biotechnology industry to coax yeast to release useful protein drugs, such as insulin and human growth hormone.
Today, one-third of the insulin used worldwide by diabetics is produced by yeast, and the entire world’s supply of the hepatitis B vaccine is from yeast. Both systems were developed by Chiron Corp., now part of Novartis International AG, a company for which Schekman was a consultant for over 20 years.
Those contributions to science won Schekman the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, an honor he shared with James E. Rothman of Yale University and Thomas C. Südhof of Stanford.
For his accomplishments, Schekman credits his Berkeley students and colleagues who encouraged him to be innovative and daring in his research. They included his faculty mentor, the late and beloved Berkeley biochemist, Dan Koshland.
“Dan was very influential in my life. He was very supportive of my career and often pushed my research forward,” said Schekman. “He was a saint. And I just wish … I wish he were still here.”
Schekman, now a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a Berkeley faculty member in the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, has received recognition and honors unparalleled to others in his field of study. But he continues to be an active “citizen of science,” he said, researching cures for Parkinson’s disease and pushing for free, universal access to scientific literature.
In 2013, Schekman’s lab declared it would no longer send scientific papers to prestigious publications such as Nature, Cell and Science. The move was an attempt to “break the tyranny of luxury journals” that can distort the scientific process, he said. That stance has been criticized, but also lauded by public figures including Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who has referred to Schekman as his favorite scientist.
While introducing him at a 2014 UCLA commencement, Abdul-Jabbar referred to him as a champion for scientific reform and open access.
“Dr. Schekman didn’t have to do this. He could have stayed in his lab polishing his Nobel Prize,” Abdul-Jabbar quipped. “But he didn’t. He took on the scientific establishment because he believes there is a better way. … For him, it’s not enough to believe in a better way. He’s dedicated to making that better way a reality for all of us.”
This year’s commencement will also feature a speech from the soon-to-be-named University Medalist, the top graduating senior from the Class of 2022. And California State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Assembly Member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) will be presented with the Chancellor’s Citation Award for their efforts in passing legislation to allow the admission of thousands of Berkeley students this year.
Schekman, a staunch supporter of public schools and universities, said he hopes to encourage Berkeley graduates to stay engaged with the UC system even after they leave and to always remember the campus community they came from.
“I would only hope that they look back and reflect on their time here,” said Schekman, “and whatever field or profession they pursue, take full advantage of the opportunities they are given — for themselves, for the communities they come from, and for the institutions, like Berkeley, that want them to succeed.”