Tom Cech ’70: An Odyssey of Self-Discovery

April 20, 2022
Tom Cech outdoors

Not every Grinnell College student will go on to win a Nobel Prize, as Tom Cech ’70 did. But Grinnell is the kind of place where intellectually engaged students like Cech — like you — can explore their interests and passions, discovering how they, too, can make a difference and contribute to the common good.

From RNA to COVID-19 Vaccines

Less than 20 years after graduating from Grinnell, Cech got an early morning call from Sweden informing him that he and a colleague had won the Nobel Prize for work finding that RNA in living cells can function as a catalyst.

Cech’s discovery of catalytic RNA not only changed the paradigm of molecular biology, it also provided new tools for scientific research and medicinal therapeutics. Cech’s research led to an expanded understanding of RNA’s role in biology and set the stage for exciting developments, such as CRISPR gene editing and the mRNA vaccines that are saving millions of lives around the world in the midst of a global pandemic.

Iowa Beginnings

In a biographical sketch on the Nobel Prize website, Cech describes his early life in Iowa City, Iowa, where he was part of a family in which the scientific mindset was part of everyday conversation. As a fourth grader, Cech was already knocking on doors at the University of Iowa, asking geology professors about crystal structures, meteorites, and fossils.

When Cech enrolled as a student at Grinnell College, he made discoveries — many of them about himself — that would shape his entire life.

Cech realized that as much as he liked chemistry, his interests did not begin and end there. He also loved exploring the ways that the humanities, social sciences, and sciences converge and intersect. For instance, Cech recognized that he also enjoyed classical literature, such as Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s Odyssey, and the study of constitutional history.

And in a Grinnell Organic Chemistry make-up lab, he met Carol Martinson Cech ’70, the woman who would become his wife and lifelong partner.

But most of all, he came to understand his own enduring fascination for scientific discovery.

Worlds to Conquer

After Grinnell, Cech earned a PhD in chemistry at the University of California-Berkeley, where he became fascinated with the “almost daily interplay of experimental design, observation, and interpretation” of biological chemistry.

“I wanted something where you could think of an idea, ask a question, get an answer the next day or at least the next week — then use that answer to design the next experiment. Molecular biology is much more of that tempo,” Cech says in an interview on the University of Colorado-Boulder website.

Cech began his first faculty position at the University of Colorado-Boulder in 1978. More than 40 years later, he continues to teach and conduct research at CU, where he holds the title of Distinguished Professor. He also leads the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute and directs a research team of investigators and students.

Besides the Nobel Prize, Cech was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1987 and won the National Medal of Science in 1995. He remains a champion of the liberal arts in general and Grinnell College in particular. He served as a Grinnell trustee from 1998–2014, and he and his wife Carol created a research scholarship program to support underrepresented science majors at Grinnell through summer research projects.

Grinnell Professor of Biochemistry Leslie Gregg-Jolly says that in addition to his talents as a scientist, educator, and researcher, Cech has made a profound difference through his support of the liberal arts. Gregg-Jolly, who is the Douglas Johnson ’77 Professor of Biology, says Cech is remarkable for his gifts as a communicator, his generosity in lifting others up, and his dedication to diversity in the sciences and at Grinnell College.




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