Alumnus Charles Rice received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last week for his groundbreaking contributions to treating Hepatitis C, marking the first Nobel Prize winner to graduate from Rio Americano.
In announcing the award, the Nobel committee noted that Rice and his co-winners Harvey J. Alter and Michael Houghton “made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world…The discovery of Hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in zoology from UC Davis, Rice received his Ph.D. in 1981 in biochemistry and performed post-doctoral research at California Institute of Technology, later moving to teach and conduct studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Since 2001, Rice has been a professor of virology at Rockefeller University, where he has led the Center for the Study of Hepatitis C for 17 years.
But before his higher education and contributions to curing Hepatitis C, the Nobel laureate was raised in Arden Park and attended San Juan Unified schools.
The Sacramento Years
After attending Mariemont Elementary School and Arden Middle School, Rice found himself at Rio where he enjoyed a variety of subjects, but was still unsure of what he wanted to do in life.
“In general I thought that the classes were really good,” Rice said in a zoom interview from his office in New York on Monday. “I probably wasn’t the best student in the world, but I enjoyed math and chemistry, but also English, literature and so on.”
Rice spent his high school days taking traditional core curriculum courses and recalls that when he was in high school there were not the plethora of electives offered to young students today.
Rather shy as a teenager, Rice did not participate in multiple clubs or sports in high school, although yearbooks from his time at the school show involvement in Key Club and student government. Away from school, he was fond of the outdoors. While the American River Parkway was not yet the paved bike trail of today, Rice spent time fishing from the river banks and rafting.
After graduating from Rio in 1970, Rice elected to continue his education at UC Davis.
“My trajectory out of Rio was to maybe get away from home, but not too far, hence the 50-mile trek to UC Davis,” Rice said. “I grew up with dogs instead of brothers and sisters, and I thought going to Davis would be good if I had an eventual interest in veterinary medicine.”
Rice’s story is evidence that students do not need to have a certain direction in life before graduating high school–or even college for that matter.
“I started taking introductory classes in math and chemistry, but just kind of drifted around actually for almost my entire time there,” Rice said.
Rice majored in Zoology after dabbling in various courses from Viticulture (the science of winemaking) to Spanish literature, which he added as a minor.
Rice’s innate interest in biology was fueled by professor Dennis Barrett, now at the University of Denver, who would become one of Rice’s mentors throughout his higher education.
“I guess the defining moment for me that set me on this particular trajectory was an introductory biology class that was taught by Dennis Barrett,” Rice said. “He was just a really great teacher. I think he instilled in me a curiosity about biology, which I had anyway.”
Rice went on to participate in some of Barrett’s research on developmental biology, working with sea urchins at UC Davis’s Bodega Marine Laboratory. Barrett provided Rice with many opportunities, including a summer course in physiology at Woods Hole, a renowned oceanographic institution in Massachusetts.
Graduate School and Beyond
The research at Woods Hole further stimulated Rice’s interest in cell biology and zoology, although Rice was still debating career paths.
“I was kind of waffling between doing a PhD and doing research and being a grape grower and a winemaker,” Rice said. “At that point I decided I was just going to take a break, and I had a Spanish literature minor in college, so with some friends from Davis I bought a used Volkswagen bus and headed off into Central and South America for the better part of a year.”
Yet, before heading south, Rice submitted one application to graduate school at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the famed research institution with a history of producing Nobel laureates, and the same institution where Barrett first studied sea urchins as a graduate student.
“I was actually in Lima, Peru, and my dad sent me (in those days it wasn’t email) a telegram stating that I got an acceptance letter from CalTech and they wanted to know if I was actually going to go there to graduate school,” Rice said.
Upon this letter, Rice decided to go down the research route, and accepted the offer to attend CalTech. To prepare for his PhD program, Rice left his adventures in South America and returned to Woods Hole as a teaching assistant for the physiology course that had fostered his own enthusiasm for science.
CalTech appealed to Rice because of its well-known sea urchin lab, among other reasons, but upon his arrival, he was placed in a virology lab instead.
“I guess that was initially sort of a surprise or disappointment,” Rice said, but he shared that accepting where life took him and keeping an open mind led him to the niche of biology that led him to his Nobel Prize.
“I ended up in the Strauss lab working on viruses and I really fell in love with doing that kind of research and that sort of set me on the course that I have been on since then,” Rice said. “I have been very lucky to have landed on something by this sort of random drift.”
This opportunity paved the way for Rice’s future research. Rice studied yellow fever at CalTech, which eventually aligned with international scientists’ work on the Hepatitis C virus (HCV).
“Here I was three years into my career as a junior group leader and this very significant human pathogen ends up in the same family of viruses that I had been devoting a lot of attention to,” Rice said. “There was really no escape when you started working on something that causes this level of human disease.”
As of 2016, there were an estimated 2.6 million people living with HCV. Co-laureates of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Harvey Alter and Micheal Houghton, identified HCV in 1989, but it wasn’t until 1997 that it was confirmed that the Non-A and Non-B cases of Hepatitis were in fact caused by HCV.
Building off the work of Alter and Houghton, Rice and his team later developed three new types of drugs that, in conjunction, can effectively destroy the virus.
The Nobel committee praised their work in discovering the Hepatitis C virus as a “landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases.” Their discovery has nearly eliminated hepatitis from transfusions and led to the development of new antiviral drugs “greatly improving global health” and “raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population.”
Advice for aspiring scientists
The 25 years from the identification of HCV to creation of valid treatments was a transformative time, and Rice was grateful to stumble upon such an important project.
The time Rice dedicated to viruses introduced him to many people and organizations he doubts he would have interacted with had he not pursued virology. He had the opportunity to stay in touch with patients from diagnosis, throughout his research, and to the day that they could be cured.
“It’s pretty special,” Rice said. “It doesn’t often happen that you can begin working on something when it’s a mystery virus and then going to a point where we can cure most people.”
Rice is deeply curious about cell processes, and urges high schoolers to find a career they are passionate about. He would want to be studying viruses even if he wasn’t getting paid to do it, a mindset he equates to some of his success.
“This is kind of like a hobby,” Rice reflected. “If you can land on a career path that overlaps with what you would want to be doing anyways, that’s the greatest.”
There will always be bumps in the road, Rice conceded, especially in research where results do not always go as planned, but his love for virology motivated him to stay committed to studying HCV.
“I think the most important thing is to really have curiosity and passion for your career choice,” Rice said.
Navigating college with curiosity and approaching his future with an open mind, Rice discovered a passion that would become his life’s work and save millions of lives.
“You just have to try and do your best at whatever you do, with passion and rigor and respect for your peers and others working in the same area,” Rice advises.
When Rice graduated from Rio Americano, he had not yet pinpointed his passion, but 50 years later, he awaits the formal ceremony in December to receive his Nobel Medal.