James E. Rothman is Professor and Chairman in the Department of Chemistry at Yale University. Rothman was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1950. As a teenager, he was fascinated by theoretical physics, but decided suddenly to switch to biology as an undergraduate at Yale University after an introductory lecture by Fred Richards. He then made another switch while at Harvard University, from a medical degree to the pursuit of a scientific career, and with the guidance of the brilliant Eugene Kennedy, he investigated how the lipid bilayer of cell membranes is formed. He was awarded a PhD in 1976.
During a brief post-doctoral fellowship with Harvey Lodish at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rothman learnt to work with viruses and cell-free systems – thus acquiring skills that would later prove invaluable for identifying molecules involved in vesicle trafficking.
Rothman was drawn to his first professorial appointments at Stanford University’s Department of Biochemistry by the great enzymologist Arthur Kornberg, who taught him that biochemistry could provide a route to dissecting complex biological systems. He returned to the east coast in 1988 for appointments at Princeton University, the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the Sloan-Kettering Institute before moving to Columbia University, and eventually returning to Yale University in 2008.
Rothman’s pioneering work has centered on how cells take up nutrients, move substances around within their interior, and release hormones, growth factors, and other factors to their environment. In 1993, while at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Rothman performed the key experiment that has forever linked his work to that of Thomas Südhof and Richard Scheller by demonstrating that the same molecules that control this process in the nervous system, in the release of signaling molecules called neurotransmitters, are important to vesicle transport and fusion in all cell types. The finding was a springboard for extensive research in yeast, plants, and animals, including humans, showing the universal importance of the molecules involved. Rothman continues to investigate the basic mechanisms responsible for intracellular transport and secretion of neurotransmitters and other proteins.
Rothman has received numerous honors and awards, including the King Faisal International Prize in Science (1996), the Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research (2002), Honorary Member, Japanese Biochemical Society (2005), and Fellow American Association for the Advancement of Science (2007).