Lauren Wagner '03 celebrates with her Ph.D. advisor, Carolyn Bertozzi, after receiving her degree from UC-Berkeley.

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Biology instructor inspired by her Nobel laureate advisor and friend

The message came to Lauren Wagner’s phone from a former ’03 classmate at NCSSM – and later, UC-Berkeley –: your students at NCSSM, the message read, would surely love to know about your connection to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

“I was like, ‘What is she talking about?’” says Wagner, a biology instructor at NCSSM.

So she hopped online, and there it was: Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi, Wagner’s Ph.D. advisor at UC-Berkeley, had been named one of three winners of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

That NCSSM faculty have such connections is no surprise; the school has built its reputation on the quality of its faculty. All teachers hold a master’s degree in their field, and more than 40% hold a doctorate. In pursuit of those degrees, these faculty have worked with some of the most brilliant minds in their chosen fields, and have achieved – and continue to achieve – considerable recognition for their own accomplishments. Talent like that could have taken them anywhere, yet their passion for young people led them to NCSSM, with Nobel winners in their first-name contacts list – and maybe future ones in their class, as well.

Inspired by the science

Wagner’s first brush with Bertozzi, who now teaches at Stanford University, came in the spring of 2006 at Carleton College in Minnesota, where Wagner was a junior biology student. Bertozzi was there to speak to the chemistry department where a group of seniors had built their thesis research around her work. Bertozzi, Wagner says, had recently gotten some groundbreaking new results from the bioorthogonal chemistry that would later be the basis for her Nobel prize.

Simply put, bioorthogonal chemistry (a term Bertozzi coined in 2003) utilizes a type of chemistry called click chemistry, where two molecules are so perfect for one another that they can be snapped together inside of a living organism without any unintended side products or interference in an organism’s normal biological processes.

Wagner arrived at the presentation with an interested curiosity. She left deeply inspired. Bertozzi’s work, she said, “was a really new way of thinking about how organic synthesis could be done.” Wagner promised herself that one day she would work alongside Bertozzi.

The first steps toward fulfilling that promise began with a two-year gig post-undergrad at the National Institutes for Health where Wagner worked in a lab that studied some of the same biomolecules as Bertozzi. When it was time to apply to graduate school, Wagner reached out to the woman who had inspired her.

“I wrote to her, and I told her about how I’d seen her speak at Carleton and how I’d had this long-standing interest in her work and how I was at the NIH and, like, this long-winded life story,” Wagner says. “She wrote me back these really thoughtful emails.”

Wagner joined Bertozzi’s lab at Berkeley in 2009 and worked closely with her until earning her Ph.D. in 2015. For two of those years, Wagner was Bertozzi’s teaching assistant and won a teaching award under her tutelage.

Though recognized for her research, Wagner says, Bertozzi is a masterful educator and communicator who can explain things to anyone at any level in a way that makes sense.

“She can connect these ideas, all these pieces of information, but the way she connects them is just so beautiful and logical,” Wagner says. “It feels so profound and you’re like, ‘Oh, wait; I knew all of those facts. Why didn’t they feel like that in my brain?’ It’s really amazing.”

Wagner and her collaborators published papers in 2019 and 2020 and received a prize for the research that they conducted under Bertozzi’s guidance. Throughout, Bertozzi encouraged and advocated for each of her researchers to receive the recognition they deserved for their contributions to the research.

It’s Bertozzi’s respect for her collaborators, be they her students or established colleagues, that Wagner seeks to replicate in her own classroom every day. “Carolyn could really inspire with her words, and she also really believed in both her ideas and our abilities,” Wagner says. “I see my students as my intellectual equals whose ideas and contributions are as valid as my own, and I try to show the same attention and listen with the same open mind that I saw Carolyn model.

“She’s just so inspirational,” Wagner continues, employing a word she uses often when describing Bertozzi’s impact on her life and work. “There were a lot of times during my Ph.D. program when my project…felt like it wasn’t going in the direction I wanted, and I would go into [Bertozzi’s office] ready to be like, ‘This just is not going to work, Carolyn.’ And somehow, every time I walked out of her office, I’d find myself thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to go work on this some more, I’m going to go try again.’”

Not surprised

In the midst of all the attention the Nobel Prize in Chemistry brought, Bertozzi still made time for her former students the night the Nobel was awarded by logging into a Zoom call with almost 130 attendees. Wagner was there as well to toast and celebrate her mentor, and to thank her for all she had done for those who had come through her lab. 

None of them were surprised by news of the award, though. Thrilled for their friend? Absolutely. But not surprised. Bertozzi had already been recognized in previous years for her work with a MacArthur Genius grant. The Nobel, her former students knew, was just a matter of time. 

Still, it was momentous.

“‘She did it. She did it,” Wagner says. “I knew she would do it, and she did. It took my breath away.”