“Dad, can you clear up some questions I have about NO?” Harald Schmidt’s son, who is studying Medicine in Southampton, recently asked through Skype. Little did he know that Schmidt, professor of Pharmacology & Personalised Medicine, had actually co-discovered the molecule NO, while working with the man who made it famous: American physician, pharmacologist and Nobel Prize winner Ferid Murad.
It was Murad’s research on the role of NO and its effect on the blood vessels, for which he was rewarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1998, which first caught Schmidt’s attention. “I was working as a post-doc researcher in Berlin. My supervisor had the topic of my research – and actually my whole career – planned out for me. But I was more interested in NO. A pointless topic, he said, an artefact. Luckily, I had my fellowship and therefore paid my own salary. So I continued on NO. Murad was one of the few people I could quote in my first paper – the field was so new. I decided to visit his lab in Chicago and ended up working there.”
Murad took a completely different approach to science than Schmidt was used to. “Before I met him, I just worked in research, I went from paper to grant, step by step. Murad said: You’re looking at it wrong. You have to think: what is the most challenging and urgent problem in our field today? If we solve that, the grants and papers will follow. That changed me. He made me into a real scientist; someone who creates lasting knowledge.”
Schmidt tells his PhD students the same thing. “Nowadays, you’re surrounded by people who are counting the papers you’ve written and the money you’ve brought in. But so many papers are completely irrelevant. Why should I, or anyone, devote my life to filling pages?”
Murad was very encouraging towards his researchers. “The atmosphere in the lab was so stimulating. There was a joint understanding, a true desire to create high-quality knowledge. Once a week, we had a social gathering. There were post-docs from all over the world. Murad invited us and our wives to barbecues. He made sure the couples were happy in their new country. It felt like a big family.” But Murad wasn’t only nice. “He was very demanding, asked critical questions and when he thought your proposal wasn’t scientific enough, he’d let you know.” On the other hand, Murad also taught them that failing is part of science. “A lot of our research didn’t work, as is the case in any new field. He said: If you take a step into the big dark, failing is inevitable.”
Schmidt and Murad stayed in touch ever since. “We e-mail and even though he is over 70, he still attends the biennial conference I organise. Winning the Nobel Prize hasn’t changed him. He never makes a fuss about it. He’s still an ordinary guy, interested in further exploring his field of expertise.”