Skip to main content

CU has prominent share in 2003 Nobel Prizes for chemistry and economics

Cornell has a prominent share in two Nobel prizes announced this week. Roderick MacKinnon, a visiting researcher at Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Robert Engle, a Cornell graduate, M.S., physics, '66, Ph.D., economics, '69, was co-winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

A total of 29 Nobel Prize winners have been affiliated with Cornell as faculty members or alumni.

MacKinnon, a professor at The Rockefeller University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, shared the chemistry Nobel with Peter Agre of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for work explaining how a class of membrane proteins, called channels, help to regulate cells. The ion channels studied by MacKinnon help to generate nerve impulses -- the electrical activity that underlies all movement, sensation, and thought.

Engle, the Michael Armellino Professor in the Management of Financial Services at New York University's Stern School of Business, shared the economics prize with Clive W.J. Granger of the University of California, San Diego, for research on modeling the volatility of time-series data. His work has had a major impact on applied research in many areas of economics and finance.

MacKinnon, a biophysicist and self-taught X-ray crystallographer, did much of the work leading to the prize primarily at CHESS, an X-ray facility supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and the National Synchrotron Light Source at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. Last year MacKinnon noted that CHESS had "played an absolutely crucial role in my research on the protein crystallography of membrane channels."

"Understanding membrane proteins is one of the frontier areas of cellular biology, notes Sol Gruner, director of CHESS. "Dr. MacKinnon's work has implications far beyond elucidating the way in which membrane protein channels operate. He has shown that with perseverance, even very difficult membrane proteins may be crystallized and their structures solved by crystallography. This important realization is now catalyzing work by many scientists on many different membrane proteins."

Ion channels are tiny pores that stud the surface of all of our cells. These channels allow the passage of potassium, calcium, sodium, and chloride molecules called ions. Rapid opening and closing of these channels releases ions, moving electrical impulses from the brain in a wave to their destination in the body.

Membrane proteins comprise about a third of the kinds of proteins in human cells. Despite their importance, membrane proteins are very difficult to manipulate, with the result that very few of these structures are known. Initially, many were skeptical that MacKinnon would succeed in using X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of the potassium channel. In late 1997, on the advice of the CHESS staff MacKinnon was offered time at the facility to execute what was viewed as a high-risk project. With the assistance of the CHESS staff, MacKinnon's group quickly acquired the X-ray data required to determine the atomic structure of the potassium channel.

The group's paper appeared in the journal Science in 1998 and was selected by the magazine as among the 10 most significant scientific achievements for that year. MacKinnon continues to use CHESS to advance the basic understanding of the way in which important biomembrane protein channels operate. Roughly two-thirds of the X-ray data required for this work have been acquired at CHESS.

Engle, a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business since 2000, previously was a professor at the University of California, San Diego, where he was chair of the Department of Economics from 1990 to 1994. He received the Nobel prize for his research on the concept of autoregressive conditional heteroskedasticity (ARCH). He demonstrated that it accurately captures the properties of many time series and developed methods for statistical modeling of time-varying volatility. His ARCH models have become indispensable tools not only for researchers, but also for analysts on financial markets, who use them in asset pricing and in evaluating portfolio risk.

"The Nobel committee made an excellent choice in awarding the Nobel Prize in Economics to Rob Engle and Clive Granger," said David Easley, the Henry Scarborough Professor of Social Sciences in Cornell's Department of Economics. "Rob's work has had an enormous impact on applied research in many areas of economics and finance."

Easley, Maureen O'Hara, the R.W.Purcell Professor of Management at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Liuren Wu, associate professor of finance, Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College, currently are collaborating with Engle on research into improving models of stock-price determination and price evolution.

Engle also is an expert in time series analysis with a long-time interest in the analysis of financial markets. His research also has produced such innovative statistical methods as band spectrum regression, and, most recently, common features.

He has published more than 100 academic papers and three books. His interest in financial econometrics covers equities, interest rates, exchange rates and options.

Media Contact

Media Relations Office