About Utah: Q-and-A with a Nobel laureate

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23 2014 9:00 a.m. MST

LPH: It’s been very busy. The time between when the announcement was made and our trip to Stockholm (in December) was especially busy: lots of travel, lots of acknowledgment. All the Nobel laureates were invited to Washington, D.C., for a reception at the Swedish embassy, where I had a short meeting with President Obama. He’s almost my neighbor. His house in Chicago is about eight blocks from where we live. One of the most wonderful things for me was when a group of Ph.D students I’ve advised over the years, probably 68 of them, put together a conference in my honor just a few days before my wife and I and our son went to Stockholm. That was very special. I think they might have been happier about all this than I was.

DN: What was the ceremony like in Sweden?

LPH: In Stockholm you’re treated like a celebrity. You’re there for a week, you have your own escort (and) your own private chauffeur. I wasn’t even allowed to open the car door. But we had some bad luck there. Two hours after I gave my talk I got sick. They assigned a Nobel doctor who attended to me and I got through the week but that slowed us up a little bit. When I got back to Chicago I was diagnosed with viral pneumonia. I was very, very sick most of December. Our plans of having a nice ski break over Christmas got upended. One person described it to me as the yin and yang: win a Nobel prize, get viral pneumonia. It’s the sickest I’ve been in my whole life, but I’m feeling better now.

DN: Does the celebrity status extend to being recognized on the street?

LPH: I don’t know about that, but I’ve been congratulated more than once on winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and I was congratulated once for winning the Pulitzer Prize.

DN: If your father were alive, how do you see him reacting to your win?

LPH: Pleased, obviously, and I’d have to add he’d be particularly pleased to see a graduate of Utah State University excel academically. He spent a big chunk of his career there and was completely committed to the university.

DN: Was your mother able to attend the ceremony in Stockholm?

LPH: No. She wasn’t able to travel that far, but my mother’s neighbors (in St. George) were able to project the television broadcast live and so she saw it as it happened. One of the St. George newspapers interviewed my mom. One of the questions they asked was whether she was proud of me. She said, "I’m proud of all three of my sons.” Then they asked if this would change our relationship. She said, “No. I’m still his mother, he’s still my son.” I thought it was beautiful. She’s very proud of her entire family. Just a wonderful person. That really captures my mom.

DN: You’ve been very open in interviews about not being a stellar student at Logan High School. What do you remember about those years?

LPH: I’m what some people would call a faculty brat. I’m the son of an academic. My father was at various universities and then he became provost at Utah State when I was 16. It was culture shock for me. My two years (at Logan High) were a bit rocky, my grades were erratic, I brought home a report from one class with double check marks, “Does not respect authority.” I wasn’t a particularly happy student. My parents were incredibly patient with me. It’s important to allow for late-bloomers, and I think of myself as a late-bloomer.

DN: What changed when you got to Utah State?

LPH: Utah State admits a lot of people, but it allows you to pursue whatever you desire. You could be a lazy student at Utah State and not accomplish much or you could also find that education is special and there’s an opportunity there. It had a big influence on me. You don’t have to be this incredibly motivated high school student and get to a private school to succeed. The public school system has the ability to accomplish special things.

DN: What provided the spark for you at Utah State?

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