Paul Modrich, who fell in love with science as a boy in Raton and went on to a storied career as a professor at Duke University, on Wednesday received a Nobel Prize for chemistry.
Modrich, 69, shared the prize with Tomas Lindahl and Aziz Sancar for explaining and mapping how the human body repairs mistakes in the DNA code. Their research is important to physicians in understanding and combating diseases, notably the most common form of colon cancer.
Those who know Modrich well say it was obvious at a young age that he would spend his life in a lab coat, confronting complex problems.
“In school, he was doing science projects all the time,” Dave Modrich, Paul Modrich’s younger brother, said in an interview. “I guess you’d say he was a bookworm.”
Dave Modrich still lives in Raton. He said he had not heard from his brother, who on Wednesday was vacationing in New Hampshire when the Nobel Prize in chemistry was announced in Stockholm.
Raton, a blue-collar town of 6,500, swelled with pride as word spread that a native son was now a Nobel laureate.
“The city and the county are very proud and very energized by his accomplishment,” said Roy Fernandez, a Colfax County commissioner.
Paul Modrich graduated from Raton High School in 1964. The faculty and staff, many born long after Modrich had left town to study at prestigious universities on both coasts, also reveled in his accomplishment.
“We’re all excited,” said Cindi Berry, the school attendance officer.
Modrich’s late father, Laurence, grew up in a coal camp in Colorado but took a path to academics that would help shape his son’s life. Laurence Modrich became a biology teacher and a coach at Raton High. Paul Modrich’s mother, Margaret, also deceased, worked in the home.
Laurence Modrich was a fine athlete who played football at the University of Colorado in the 1930s. Older son Paul wasn’t interested in playing sports, but he still took coaching from his father to heart.
A story about Paul Modrich published Wednesday by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute said he was a junior at Raton High when his father gave him the tip that would guide him: “You should learn about this DNA stuff.”
Always the eager student, Paul Modrich remembered his dad’s advice when he started on his journey toward becoming a scientist. He left Raton for MIT, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1968. He then went to the opposite coast for his doctorate at Stanford University, received in 1973.
Modrich has spent most of his professional life at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He joined the faculty of the Duke School of Medicine in 1976. Modrich in 1994 became an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, doing that work at Duke as well.
Modrich also is the James B. Duke professor of medicine, a professor of biochemistry and a member of the Duke Cancer Institute.
With Lindahl and Sancar, he researched how cells protect genetic information by repairing damaged DNA. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which bestowed their Nobel Prize, said the trio’s work provided essential knowledge of how a living cell functions, data important to the medical world.
Lindahl is based at the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in the United Kingdom. Sancar works at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, just 10 miles from Duke.
Modrich was not available for interviews Wednesday. But he had told writers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that his boyhood in Raton helped spark his curiosity in science.
“There was huge biological diversity around me,” he said. “Within five miles, the ecology can change dramatically. It was very thought provoking.”
His interest in science extends to his personal life. Modrich is married to Vickers Burdett, also a biochemist at Duke.
Paul Modrich got the right start in Raton, following his natural interest and turning it into a career. The boy who was excited by science projects never lost that enthusiasm, nor did the active ingredients of his commitment ever change. The only difference now is that he’s on the world stage as a Nobel laureate.