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Humor, vision, and drive: The road to a Nobel Prize, observed from the sidelines

<h5>From left to right: MacMillan (photo courtesy of Denise Applewhite / Office of Communications), Ressa (photo courtesy of Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian), and Manabe (photo courtesy of Denise Applewhite / Office of Communications).</h5>
<h6>Photo compilation: Annabelle Duval / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
From left to right: MacMillan (photo courtesy of Denise Applewhite / Office of Communications), Ressa (photo courtesy of Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian), and Manabe (photo courtesy of Denise Applewhite / Office of Communications).
Photo compilation: Annabelle Duval / The Daily Princetonian

The week of Oct. 4, 2021 saw two Princeton University professors awarded Nobel prizes in Physics and Chemistry, and one alum the Nobel Peace Prize. Syukuro Manabe, David MacMillan, and Maria Ressa ’86 became household names within a week — but to some, they were known and revered long before the international accolades. The Daily Princetonian spoke with people close to the award winners — colleagues, students, and former classmates — to learn more about the people behind the achievements. 

Syukuro Manabe

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“Having Suki win the Nobel was something I had talked about with colleagues for at least fifteen if not twenty years before now,” said Professor Ronald Stouffer of the University of Arizona about Syukuro “Suki” Manabe, under whom he worked for nearly 20 years at the Princeton Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL). 

Despite this confidence in Manabe’s merit, Stouffer had his doubts about whether any meteorologist could break into the award’s ranks.

“I had always argued that there was no way that physicists would let a meteorologist win the Nobel. That just wasn’t going to happen,” Stouffer said. “He absolutely deserved it, so I was thrilled to be wrong.”

Others in the field agreed, noting that environmental science does not usually garner the same recognition as other scientific disciplines. 

“Usually Nobel Prizes are not given to research in environmental fields. Our work is not boiled down into single breakthroughs,” said Professor Stephen A. Fueglistaler, Director of the Princeton Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (AOS) program. “I literally almost fell out of my bed when I saw that it was Manabe [who had won], it was a wonderful thing.”

Manabe won the favor of the Nobel Committee with his seminal research on climate modeling. Those who worked closely with Manabe believe his success was not only the result of his intellect, but also a product of his unwavering enthusiasm, curiosity, and dedication in the workplace. 

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“Working with Suki was most certainly the most fun part of my career,” Stouffer said. “He was tremendously enthusiastic. He worked incredibly long hours. He was a workaholic, he loved his work.”

“He was always interested in everything,” reflected Professor Kenneth Bowman of Texas A&M University, who worked under Manabe as a graduate student. “He was very enthusiastic about anything climate related, and he was very cheerful. He always loved to talk with people.”

“Suki’s enthusiasm for his work just rubbed off on the people around him,” Professor Isaac Held — another former graduate student advised by Manabe — similarly commented. “And I think that combined with his humility. He never had much of an ego. In fact, people often underestimated him when they first talked to him, because he had that humility and humor.”

Manabe’s philosophy of equality and collaboration shaped the work environment of his team at GFDL, and several former team members believe this attitude resulted in better research.

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“Even when I first started working under him, Suki was never hierarchical,” Stouffer said. “Suki liked ‘flat’ research, where everyone was equal. He wanted people to argue with him, because that’s how you get to the right answer. You have different opinions and logical arguments and you figure out what is going on together.”

Held added, “Suki was the opposite of the stereotype of a theoretical physicist. He was very easy to talk to and bounce ideas off of. He had this humor and enthusiasm that made it a really nice work environment.” 

Manabe’s positive atmosphere extended beyond his immediate research team to anyone he happened to be working around. 

“When I came to Princeton I was very surprised to bump into him — his office was next to mine,” Fueglistaler said. “That was a beautiful surprise. It is amazing to see a legend just as involved and curious as he was nearly seventy years ago.” 

David MacMillan

Even as an undergraduate, working in MacMillan’s lab was always a “dream” and “a big motivation” for James Oakley. Oakley is now a fourth-year graduate student in the lab. 

When Oakley awoke on Oct. 6, 2021 to texts from friends and colleagues congratulating his boss on winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, he expected the day to be unusual.

Nonetheless, subgroup meetings proceeded as per usual in the MacMillan lab.

“We got [an email] from Dave that said, despite the news, we still should have group meeting [that] morning so we all got together and we still had subgroup, which was true to fashion,” Oakley said.

David W.C. MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, was awarded the prize for “the development of asymmetric organocatalysis,” a field which Oakley explained MacMillan himself started 20 years ago. Oakley recalled coming across MacMillan’s work very early in his academic career.

“Reading his papers as an undergrad — how innovative the chemistry was, how exciting the chemistry was — his lab is always breaking new boundaries ... in chemical reactivity … I wanted to be a part of that exciting, paradigm-breaking, boundary-pushing, type research that he did,” Oakley said. 

Oakley noted that MacMillan emphasizes effectively communicating scientific work to broader audiences.

“Dave is really good at getting you inspired about your work, but also thinking about what’s going to make this exciting to other people. And I really think that that has been one of the most fruitful things that he has taught me,” Oakley explained.

MacMillan lab alumna and Lecturer in Chemistry Sandra Knowles shared a similar sentiment to Oakley as she recalled her time in the lab. 

“People who come out of his lab are known to give great presentations because they give context to the science they’re talking about. That’s from Dave’s training,” said Knowles. “Any alumni of the group is able to communicate chemistry in a way that makes it relevant and interesting.”

Knowles reminisced on her time in the MacMillan lab and reflected on what she had learned, as well as how her time there influenced the trajectory of her career.  

“[Prof. MacMillan] has a vision and an ability to pinpoint an important question to ask and then follow through on it ... he always has a big picture in mind. I would say that vision paid off,” Knowles said. “I certainly admire him for being able to have that vision of ‘this is an important contribution.’”

Ultimately, for Knowles: “You have to find what’s going to drive you, and part of that I learned from graduate school and from Dave.”

On Oct. 6, Knowles described a call she received from MacMillan shortly before 6 a.m. 

“He was just so thrilled and pretty much we were screaming just in celebration and jumping up and down,” Knowles said. “It’s a huge accomplishment and recognition of that work was very important to all of us.”

Knowles says she sees “continued success” for MacMillan, largely due to his “fearless” approach to chemistry.  

“He’s the type of person to jump in with both feet. He doesn’t dance around things; he’s very direct. I certainly appreciated it. Naturally my personality isn’t that way and I think I really have [learned] to go for it. And not go for it in a small way, like, go big,” she said. “And that’s certainly from Dave ... Be bold.”

Maria Ressa

When Anne Cheng ’85, a Professor of English at Princeton, found out that her college friend Maria Ressa had just won the Nobel Peace Prize, “I was alone in my kitchen at home. And I was dancing. And then I had to email all my students just because I have to share with somebody.”

“I was so excited,” said Cheng. “I mean in a way it was shocking because it’s out of the blue, but I was also so, so proud of the Nobel Peace Committee for recognizing her.”

Cheng reflected on Ressa’s time at Princeton: “She was always interested in politics and she did student government, but I don’t really know her through that; I know her through the theater world.” 

Ressa directed at least five plays, according to Cheng, including a play by David Mamet. 

“For me, seeing her work … I really felt like I was watching someone … think her way through the piece,” said Cheng. 

Valentina Vavasis ’86 also remembers Ressa’s directing. 

“She was always really interested in language, how people speak, how people communicate,” she said.

Vavasis met Ressa during her first year at Princeton because they were in the same “RA group” (zee group today). The two became close friends and later, roommates. They met Cheng, who was one class year above, through theater. 

“We were the three musketeers,” Cheng said.

Vavasis shared anecdotes from the early days of her friendship with Ressa: “When we were freshmen, she brought her guitar to college, and she wrote songs about all of us. She used to sing folksy kinds of songs.” 

Ressa’s senior yearbook blurb, which Vavasis’ 94-year-old mother found after Ressa won the Nobel Peace Prize, contains a stanza from “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondeim’s “Company,” a quote from Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, and an excerpt from Zen texts.

While both Cheng and Vavasis reflected that they don’t know whether they could have predicted Ressa’s future path and accomplishments when they were at Princeton, the two recall aspects of her personality in college that reflect who she has become.

“When we were in school … she was very excited about learning,” Vavasis shared.

“She has more backbone than anyone I’ve ever met,” Cheng said. “At age 18 she was already this really strong, emotionally strong, willfully strong person, and she was always directed, so [while] I think the rest of us were running around trying to find our way [but] she was always very directed.”

Neither Cheng nor Vavasis has been in close touch with Ressa in recent years. 

“Moving to the Philippines made it a little harder for people to stay connected [with her],” said Vavasis. She has, however, enjoyed keeping up with Ressa’s life through reading her books and following her journalism. “[She asks] intelligent, subtle, sophisticated questions.”

Both hope that the recognition Ressa has just received will serve as some form of protection as she continues her work. As Cheng said, “She has been living in a very perilous situation for a very long time. And anyone who knows her worries about her. Maybe now that there’s world attention she will be safer.”

“She’s not near retirement. She’s still doing a lot of work,” said Vavasis.

If Cheng could reach Ressa right now, she would say, “Congratulations. We always knew you're a tough cookie.”

Vavasis is planning to write a note to Ressa, and she wants to convey that, “I’m really proud of her. She could have taken all her talents and her abilities and gone in a different direction, but she really decided to go in a direction that I think has made a difference.” 

For those who spent time with all three of the Nobel Prize winners — whether in the lab, at the department office, or even on the stage — one sentiment rang true.

“Our time was kind of a gift. It was just a gift of three years with this extraordinary person,” Cheng said of Ressa.

Sydney Eck is an Assistant Features Editor and Senior Prospect Writer for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at seeck@princeton.edu

Anika Buch is an Assistant News Editor and Staff Features Writer for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at ambuch@princeton.edu

Julie Levey is a Staff Features Writer for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at jlevey@princeton.edu

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