Ardem Patapoutian, an Armenian molecular biologist and neuroscientist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine on October 4. Born in 1967 in Beirut to descendants of Genocide survivors from Hadjin, he is the first Armenian Nobel laureate.
He shares the Nobel Prize with David Julius, of the University of California, San Francisco. “Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us,” says the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in its press release. “In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates.”
He also shares with Julius both the Kavli Prize, a prestigious distinction awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research and the Kavli Foundation that he received last year, and the Frontiers of Knowledge Prize, awarded by Spain’s BBVA Foundation, which he received only a few weeks before the announcement of the Nobel.
Patapoutian’s father is writer Sarkis Vahaken and his mother, teacher Haiguhi Adjemian Patapoutian, served for many years as Beirut’s AGBU Demirdjian School Principal.
He attended the American University of Beirut before emigrating to the United States in 1986, where he later became a U.S. citizen. In his autobiography for the Kavli Prize, which he received in 2020, Patapoutian says that AUB was one of the havens of his youth. Yet, “the conflict continued to escalate, and one fateful and terrifying morning, I was captured and held by armed militants,” he writes. “A few months later, I moved to Los Angeles.”
He was faced with a different set of challenges when he arrived in the U.S. “This first year in LA was a different kind of struggle to adapt, perhaps as challenging a year as a young adult as any I had experienced as a child in Beirut,” he writes in the autobiography. “Suffice to say, a highlight was writing horoscopes for the local Armenian newspaper.”
He received a bachelor’s degree in cell and developmental biology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1990 and a Ph.D. in biology from the California Institute of Technology in 1996.
As a postdoctoral fellow, Patapoutian worked with Louis F. Reichardt at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2000, he became an assistant professor at the Scripps Research Institute. Between 2000 and 2014, he had an additional research position for the Novartis Research Foundation. Since 2014, Patapoutian has been an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.