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Nobel laureates highlight 2-day DukeMed symposium

Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse spoke Monday afternoon to an overflowing audience at the Searle Center lecture hall at the kick-off to Duke Medicine's 75th Anniversary Science Symposium.

The two-day symposium, which concludes Tuesday, celebrates Duke Medicine's achievements by bringing together some of the leading minds in science to share their thoughts on what they believe will be the next big ideas in science and how these discoveries will impact the future of medicine.

In addition to Nurse, the symposium will feature two other Nobel Prize winners and ten leading scientists.

Dr. Sandy Williams, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, said a major focus of the symposium is students and how they can-and are-impacting science. In keeping with the symposium's philosophy, 12 medical students were awarded various honors for outstanding contributions to the medical field.

"The theme of today and tomorrow are the next great ideas in science," Williams said, addressing the students in the audience. "My hope is that from some of you truly the next great ideas will spring."

Williams, who introduced Nurse, praised the Nobel laureate for his work in cell research and urged the audience to watch Nurse's Nobel acceptance speech online, which he said would convince viewers that scientists, and even science, can be funny.

Nurse's sense of humor was evident throughout the talk, as he made cracks about the objectivity of experiments and the tendency of 18th-century scientists to take themselves too seriously-he even picked on the French.

While discussing the four "great ideas" in history that he said will be key to supporting new ideas in biology, Nurse referred to the late 18th-century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier's studies of chemical reactions in wine.

"He turned his thoughts to fermentation as the French are likely to do," he quipped.

Nurse focused on four concepts: the idea of cells as the simplest form of all life, genes as a unit of heredity, life as chemistry and evolution by natural selection.

Nurse then tied these ideas together, explaining why they are key to understanding "the modern great idea of biological organization"-or the interactions and functions of "living machines" such as cells.

"We have to think about the purpose of what is happening within the cell," Nurse said. "In the case of a radio, it's how a radio works. In the case of a cell, it's how a cell works."

Nurse emphasized the importance of understanding cell function over mapping the intricate composition of the cell itself.

"Beauty is not in that structure but in what that structure means for inheritance," said Nurse, referring to the double helix model of DNA.

Nurse added that a new model was needed for the study of biology, although even he admitted he was not sure what that new model should look like.

He likened such a shift to the transition from Newtonian physics to relativity theory or quantum mechanics: a paradigm with its own rules, a different focus-and even a new vocabulary.

"Once you have a language you move from 'yes/no' to the works of Shakespeare," Nurse said. "I do think it's going to be quite difficult though."

Although Nurse's lecture marked only the beginning of the symposium, which has several other prominent speakers remaining on the schedule, many audience members left Nurse's speech impressed and excited. "It's just incredible to be in the presence of someone who has done such great science," said Mollie Minear, a student in the University Program for Genetics and Genomics. "How often do you get to hear a Nobel Prize winner speak in your life?"

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