Professor Michael Levitt honoured at Honorary Degree Congregation

  • 19 June 2019

Nobel Laureate, Professor Michael Levitt, Honorary Fellow of Gonville & Caius College and of Peterhouse, has been admitted to an Honorary Doctorate by The Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville at this year’s Honorary Degree Congregation on Wednesday 19 June.

Each year at the Honorary Degree Congregation, the University celebrates the outstanding achievements of individuals both in the United Kingdom and around the world. This year, Professor Levitt was one of eight distinguished nominees to be honoured at the ceremony in Senate House. The nominees included renowned conductor Sir Mark Elder; primatologist, anthropologist and world expert on chimpanzees Dame Jane Goodall; and resolute campaigner for racial justice and reform of the police service The Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon.

Professor Levitt is a pioneering biophysicist and structural biologist currently based at Stanford University, who has conducted research on the molecular structure of essential biological compounds. He was honoured for his outstanding contributions to the study of protein folding and his effort to popularise the use of computer modelling in biology. Professor Levitt’s work won him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2013, along with Martin Karplus and Arieh Warshel.

Writing on the Nobel Prize website, Professor Levitt tells how perseverance and encouragement from friends pushed him to pursue a PhD at the renowned Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). Professor Levitt recalls that a spontaneous talk with one of the heads of the Structural Studies Division “influenced [his] life beyond all expectations” as a few days later, they decided to accept him in 1968. It was at the LMB that he first heard Caius alumnus Francis Crick (1950), Sydney Brenner and Aaron Klug talk about tRNA. His work modelling tRNA gave way to his second paper, which was sole-authored and submitted on his behalf by Crick. It was reviewed, accepted and published in Nature in 23 days!

At the end of 1971, Professor Levitt defended his PhD and stayed on as a staff member at the LMB until September 1972. A year earlier, he was admitted as a Research Fellow at Gonville & Caius College and describes it as “a lucrative fellowship”. Thanks to a college loan, the family was able to buy their first home near the LMB.

Postdoc positions took the Levitts around the world, but they always managed to maintain their connection to Cambridge. In 2013, shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Professor Levitt was elected as an Honorary Fellow of Gonville & Caius College.

In response to the news of the Nobel Prize, Professor Sir Alan Fersht, former Master of Caius, wrote, “To me, all three of this year's winners deserved their Nobel Prizes just for their earlier work, and have taken it to even greater heights since. The prize is a triumph for youth. Martin Karplus earned his PhD at an age when many are just starting it. Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel showed what young scientists can achieve in a laboratory that fosters talent and independence.”

Dr Pippa Rogerson, Master of Gonville & Caius, said “Caius has a magnificent tradition supporting the research of young scientists: from William Harvey to Stephen Hawking. The College is delighted to congratulate Professor Levitt on his Honorary Doctorate.”



Photograph taken by Professor Sir Alan Fersht.

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