Menlo Park resident and Stanford University neuroscientist Thomas Sudhof was at a conference in Baeza, Spain when he got the news Monday he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Sudhof shares the $1.2 million prize with two others "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells."
"I'm absolutely surprised," he said. "Every scientist dreams of this. I didn't realize there was a chance I would be awarded the prize. I am stunned and really happy to share the prize with James Rothman (of Yale University) and Randy Schekman (of the University of California at Berkeley)."
The German-born Sudhof, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at the School of Medicine, explores how neurons in the brain communicate with one another across gaps called synapses.
"We'd like to understand how synapses come to learning on a larger scale," he told the Stanford School of Medicine's communications office in a phone conversation this morning. "How are the specific connections established? How do they form? And what happens in schizophrenia and autism, when these connections are compromised?"
The Nobel committee called Sudhof on his cell phone after first trying his home in Menlo Park. His wife, Lu Chen, a Stanford associate professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry and behavioral sciences, gave them his cell phone number.
"The phone rang three times before I decided to go downstairs and pick it up," Chen said. "I thought it was one of my Chinese relatives who couldn't figure out the time zone."
Sudhof "has patiently but relentlessly probed one of the fundamental questions of medical science perhaps the fundamental question in neuroscience: how nerve cells communicate with each other," said Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine.
"The answer is at the crux of human biology and of monumental importance to human health."
The other two Nobel winners today also have Stanford connections. Rothman is a former Stanford professor of biochemistry and Schekman earned his doctorate at Stanford under the late Arthur Kornberg, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959.