Nobel News Starts with an Apology

‘It’s going to be a little crazy, and I wanted to apologize’

Part of the Paul Modrich Shares Nobel Prize in Chemistry Series
Joanne Bisson, right, assistant to Paul Modrich, celebrates with Elisabeth Penland, a research technician in Modrich's lab, after they learned that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry early this mor
Joanne Bisson, right, assistant to Paul Modrich, celebrates with Elisabeth Penland, a research technician in Modrich's lab, after they learned that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry early this morning. Photo by Duke Photography.

It was 6:30 a.m. when Joanne Bisson got the call. She was driving to work as part of her morning commute to Duke. 

On the other end, a voice asked her if she was sitting down. Bisson braced for news.

“There’s going to be a little commotion at the office today,” said Paul Modrich, the James B. Duke professor of biochemistry in the Duke Medical School. “I’m sorry. I won an award. It’s going to be a little crazy, and I wanted to apologize.”

Curious, Bisson asked, “What award did you get?”

“I got the Nobel Prize,” Modrich answered.

Containing herself, Bisson worked to find a place to park near her office at the Nanaline  H. Duke Building. She stepped out of her car and screamed at the top of her lungs in excitement. Then, she heard sirens from afar and feared someone might have called Duke Police to report a woman in distress.

“I’ve never screamed like that before,” said Bisson, Modrich’s assistant. “All of my emotions came out at the same time." 

It was a fitting reaction from Bisson, who’s worked with Modrich for four years. It came bursting out after hearing he received this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was shared with Aziz Sancar, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Tomas Lindahl of the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in the UK. Modrich was recognized for his four decades of work on how mistakes in the DNA code are repaired. 

But the rush of the news wouldn’t end there. Elsewhere on campus, Katherine Harley and Victoria Ronk, lab managers who were a part of a celebration in 2012 when Duke’s Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz received the Nobel in chemistry, caught the news of Modrich’s win while scrolling through Facebook. Having been through the same early-morning mayhem three years ago, they immediately knew how they could help.

“We need to get her a survival kit,” Harley told coworkers. 

Harley and Ronk threw together a gift bag and visited Bisson, who had been scrambling to pass along interview requests and congratulatory messages to her boss. Inside the “survival kit,” Bisson found Extra Strength Tylenol, M&Ms, dental floss, breath mints and other essentials “for those unexpected interviews,” Harley said.

The craziness of the morning reminded Harley and Ronk of their own experiences and the frantic pace that will last for months, they advised Bisson. 

“It was an exciting time for us in 2012, but it will be much more fun watching Joanne this time around,” Ronk said.