A Nobel Job

 As the Nobel Prize winners finished a hectic week of press conferences, lectures, the Prize ceremony and visiting Swedish universities, their assistants exhale from an honorable, but demanding assignment.

Patric Nilsson, a 30-year-old diplomat, who normally works with persons in distress, accidents and evacuations for the Swedish Foreign Ministry, was paired up with Chemistry winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, professor with the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, U.K.

“I really like it,” Nilsson says of assisting Ramakrishnan, who is one of three winners in Chemistry for their studies of the structure and function of the ribosome, which are parts of cells making protein from amino acids.

“He is very easy to assist, very humble,” he continues. “He told me that a young man should not waste his Saturday night in order to pick up an old man at the airport and that he would be fine taking the Arlanda Express.”

Nilsson laughs and explains that he was able to assure Ramakhrisnan that he would be his assistant and that a car and a driver would be at their disposal for the whole week.

“I am not at all used to this service, I don’t even have a secretary, so to have someone who takes care of all my appointments that seems like a luxury to me,” Ramakhrisnan says.

The responsibility of the Nobel attachés, which were 12 this year, is mainly to coordinate the laureates time and making sure he or she is on time for their various engagements. They are selected from applicants from The Swedish Foreign Ministry.

Once the winners, or laureates, are contacted in October and told about their achievement, an information kit is sent to them and the Nobel Foundation then sends a request to the Swedish Foreign Ministry for suitable attachés, based on language skills and other experiences that might be a good fit. During the week the Nilsson and the other attachés are relieved of their usual duties at the Foreign Ministry in order to be available at all waking hours for the laureate and his or her guests.

Michael Sohlman, who is the executive director of the Nobel Foundation, says that if a major problem would occur, the foundation would step in, but the small stuff is left in what he describes as the capable hands of the attachés. But even the small stuff can grow into big problems and that’s when the attachés ability to improvise or come up with quick solutions is crucial.

Nilsson, who also has a background in working with artists, says finding solutions is one of his strengths.

“Mr. Ramakhrishna forgot his tie in England, so I went home and I got all my ties out of my closet and put them on his hotel bed and said ‘Chose one,’” Nilsson says.  “And he’s been wearing my red tie all week long, because he likes it so much, so I am thinking about giving it to him when he leaves.”

This year, Monica Jagerman, who works in HR with the Foreign Minstry got the task to find suitable Nobel Attachés.

“We really enjoy this assignment,” she says. “It’s a great assignment, because we get to use our skills that we have from our foreign services and we get to meet these people on a personal level. Some attachés and laureates have contact for years afterwards.”

In the case of Nilsson and Ramakhrisnan, Jagerman had paid extra attention to a small fact. As a baby, Nilsson was adopted from India.

“I walked off the plane and I saw someone who looked like a fellow Indian,” says Ramakhrisnan, who is American, but originally from India. “It was great to have him along. Sometimes people think he’s my son, so I joke that he is my son for this week.”

Nilsson thought it was neat that people thought them to be father and son, and he was grateful to get paired up with a laureate with Indian roots, because he had booked a trip to India for the first time this December.

Nilsson enjoyed the Nobel banquet, but being used to attending banquets and receptions from his work, he thought coordinating the basic stuff for Ramakhrisnan was his favorite part of his assignment as a Nobel attaché. He particularly liked visiting an elementary school with Ramakhrisnan and his family days before the award ceremony. And once the Nobel week drew to its end and Ramakhrisnan went to the University of Lund, Nilsson could start winding down.

“If they asked me today, would I do the same thing next week, I’d say no, because I am exhausted,” Nilsson says. “But if they asked me if I’d do it next year, I would say of course.”

 By Majsan Boström