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I’m what you might call a nerd

Thomas Südhof

BIRKENSTORY #19

Thomas Südhof – Waldorf Student, Neuroscientist, and Nobel Laureate

Professor Thomas Südhof describes himself as a typical nerd. The native of Göttingen, Germany, has been a Nobel Laureate since 2013 and teaches at the Stanford University School of Medicine, south of San Francisco. He has lived here with his family for many years. We visited the “presumably only Waldorf student with a Nobel Prize” at his home. Südhof spoke with us about awards, fashion, and his meeting with Barack Obama – while wearing Birkenstocks, of course.

A Stubborn Outsider

Südhof was very independent at a very early age. He hitchhiked through Europe alone when he was only 14 years old, and spent a year in America when he was 16. He was also influenced by his experiences at the Waldorf School, where he particularly appreciated the open world view, the intellectual focus, and the lively debate culture.

His inclination to question everything was already apparent back then. His always doubted official versions of events: “I didn’t accept anything that I couldn’t confirm through my own experience,” he says, describing himself in retrospect.

Understanding How Diseases Develop

Later, at med school, Südhof became increasingly aware of how doctors treat patients. His feeling was that you learn to act like you can help people. “But the fact is that we have no idea how most diseases develop,” says Südhof. He thinks it’s a mistake that health research always emphasizes the importance of working on the diseases themselves. This costs a lot of money and often sounds good. “But in the end it doesn’t solve anything – you can’t really treat a disease if you don’t know what to treat,” explains the passionate researcher.

Nobel Prize After 27 Years

Südhof was never interested in awards. He was and still is solely interested in the quality of his research – coupled with the goal of achieving something that actually helps people. He began working on the project for which he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2013 back in late 1986. The main focus of this work was on how nerve cells in the brain communicate through the release of neurotransmitters. Südhof and his team are investigating the speed and precision of certain processes of these neurotransmitters.

Motivation to Carry On

For Südhof, the Nobel Prize is an honorable distinction. Yet despite being very grateful about receiving it, he doesn’t see anything in it that sets him apart from others – if anything, he views the prize more as a responsibility. “I’ve simply been lucky, others haven’t. So let’s simply get back down to work,” he says laconically, and begins to talk about new medical challenges, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease: “The incidence of these diseases will increase, partly because people are living longer.”

Visiting the White House in Birkenstocks

Thomas Südhof has always had a mind of his own – and that also applies to his feet. He has loved sandals since he was 16 years old and eventually discovered Birkenstocks. “I’d rather have something natural beneath my feet than just some bits of plastic. Since my days as a student, I’ve always found Birkenstock sandals to be extremely comfortable, especially the cork footbed,” he explains with a smile.

In fact, he continues to wear them to this day – always and everywhere. Even when he was invited to the White House with a group of scientists and they spoke with President Obama in the Oval Office, Südhof was wearing his Birkenstocks.

His summary of the meeting: “Obama is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.”

Research and Fashion

Südhof always wears his sandals with socks. And of course people constantly tell him that it’s not fashionable. “But I don’t care – sorry not sorry,” he laughs, and draws a comparison with research. Trends are extremely widespread in this field as well, he says. As with all other human activities, everyone moves in the same direction and does the same thing. His opinion is unambiguous: “I think that to really be successful, you have to break free from trends and go your own way!”

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