Every scientist dreams of getting what in the United States is a pre-dawn call from Sweden with the news that he or she has won a Nobel Prize.

Their joy is shared with family, friends, colleagues and — in a special way — their students.

Students can boast — and note on résumés — that they study with a Nobel laureate. Princeton University graduate student Ju Shen recently shared with his parents back in Nanxun, China, the news that his adviser, Duncan Haldane, had just won the physics prize.

“They are very proud of me,” said the 27-year-old doctoral student. “They posted it on WeChat, the social network in China, and even their friends started sharing it, somehow feeling that they had a connection to a Nobel Prize winner.”

Haldane is among six new laureates — five from the United Kingdom and one from Finland — who have taught for decades at U.S. universities, where even esteemed professors customarily teach a class or two on top of doing the research for which prizes are awarded.

Map showing pictures of Nobel laureates over map of U.S. (© AP Images/© Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge [photographer Kiloran Howard]/State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(© AP Images/© Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge [photographer Kiloran Howard]/State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
In scientific circles, this year’s crop of laureates were famous long before the Nobel Prize Committee made the pre-dawn calls.

In each case, it came as no surprise to students that their professor is a prominent person in his field.

As a senior at Northwestern University in 2015, Nicole Martinez, 22, got into Sir James Fraser Stoddard’s graduate-level advanced organic chemistry class. “I was very lucky. I knew he was very successful in this field of molecular machines, but I didn’t realize quite how big,” says Martinez, now in graduate school.

The chemistry laureate lectures twice a week and also presides over a 90-minute session on Wednesday nights to help students with homework problems. That accords with Martinez’s experience as his student. “He was very accessible,” she says. “He kind of had an open door. You could go see him at any time.”

Princeton’s Shen always marvels at something Haldane can pull off effortlessly at the blackboard. The professor does “a lot of complex calculations without looking at any notes,” he says.

A few hours after being woken early by his Swedish callers October 4, Haldane taught his usual Tuesday morning class on “Electromagnetism: Principles and Problem Solving.” Students greeted him with a standing ovation.

Students sitting in auditorium, clapping (Courtesy of Denise Applewhite/Princeton University)
Princeton students and staff applaud Haldane’s accomplishment. (Courtesy of Denise Applewhite/Princeton University)

Harvard University’s Oliver Hart, who shared the economics prize, once taught David Laibson, who is now chairman of Harvard’s economics department. “As a student, I fell in love with him,” says Laibson. “He had a wonderful sense of irony, always winking at us, while teaching us the most important and deep concepts of economics.”

Brown University’s J. Michael Kosterlitz, co-winner of the physics prize, is on sabbatical, teaching in Finland this semester. But speaking by videoconference with colleagues back in Providence, Rhode Island, he made a pitch to students to become physicists.

They don’t make as much as Wall Street traders, but it’s fun and “there are so many unsolved problems waiting for somebody young, crazy and smart,” he said. And that enthusiasm is why so many of the laureates are so important to U.S. higher education.

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