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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

UCLA Professor Gets the Prize of Prizes

October 18, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

A school band is playing "It's Not Unusual," the old Tom Jones song. It really feels like fall. Leaves are on the walkways, it's a football weekend on campus, a furry mascot is prancing around in costume, students are beginning to wear longer sleeves and tops are up on the convertibles in the parking lot.

Amandeep Shergill feels like starting up a cheer, so she does.

"Give me an 'L,' " she says.

But her friends are a beat behind.

So she gives up, but somebody encourages Shergill to try one more time.

"OK, then give me an 'L.' " And this time they do--Neeru Kaushik, Krupali Tejura, Samir Sodha, Sammy Tesfay, John Abdelshehid and a number of others from UCLA med school's Class of 2001, huddled in a Westwood courtyard.

Then they give her an "O."

Then a "U."

And then the students chant "Lou! Lou! Lou! Lou! Lou!" for a big man on campus, standing proudly in front of them.

Lou Ignarro has won the Nobel Prize.

*

They were waiting to ambush him at 8:30 that morning in his own classroom, Room 73-105, a few hours before Friday's outdoor pep rally with the band and all.

There was a cake, sparkling wine and a greeting card the size of a freshman.

Oh, and a "Viagra" T-shirt.

The news had broken Monday that their favorite professor, Louis J. Ignarro, PhD, 57, a UCLA pharmacologist, had just become the first faculty member from the university's School of Medicine to win science's prize of prizes. (And here people thought the UCLA quarterback's pursuit of a Heisman Trophy was hot stuff.)

He won it for his work showing the importance of nitric oxide in regulating the human cardiovascular system. It can relieve hypertension. It can help reduce the possibility of a stroke.

And, furthermore, Ignarro's discoveries also led to the creation of a foundation for the development of Viagra as an anti-impotence drug.

In layman's terms . . . well, never mind.

That's why his pupils made up the T-shirt and had it waiting for him Friday morning. "VIAGRA," the front read. "The New Drug That Increases the Blood Flow to a Man's Brain."

Ignarro enjoyed it. They knew he would.

They have an award called the Golden Apple that med students at UCLA give out to a professor after every school year, just to say thanks. Ignarro has won 10 years in a row.

"He has to go to Stockholm for the award," Shergill says, "And you know what he's worried about? 'What if I'm not here for your finals?' The man won a Nobel Prize and he's worried about missing a class."

This is the first thing every colleague observes about Ignarro, his incredible dedication. First one to work, last one to leave. That's his rep.

They all told him a Nobel was inevitable.

"They've been bugging me about it for five years now," Ignarro says, laughing. "The pressure's finally off."

Dr. Gerald Levey, the medical sciences provost, got a phone call at 3 a.m. Monday with the news. Actually, his wife answered the phone and said, "Wow, Lou Ignarro just won the Nobel Prize! Get out of bed!"

Ignarro himself was en route to Italy to speak at a university there. That's when it struck Levey: "To give the Nobel Prize to an Italian American . . . originally from Brooklyn . . . on Columbus Day . . . while he was in Italy at the time, that's perfect."

A surgeon, Robin Farias Eisner, phoned and found Ignarro at an airport in Nice, France, as he was about to board a 1 p.m. flight for Naples. He gave him the news. Ignarro didn't believe him.

But when his Italian hosts met his plane, he knew it wasn't because it was Columbus Day.

*

Rayshad Oshtory, a first-year med student, hands Dr. Ignarro a pen.

"Would you sign my T-shirt?" he asks.

It's fall all right, and school spirit is in the air. The band is playing "Viva Las Vegas" now, and soon will swing into the UCLA fight song. The football team is having a good year, and the medical school is having a better one.

A glass is given to the guest of honor, slim as a test tube. Something's bubbling.

"Is it real?" Ignarro asks.

"No, sparkling cider."

"I'll make believe," says the winner, and drinks up.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail mike.downey@latimes.com

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