When Martin L. Chalfie ’69 woke up a little after six from uninterrupted slumber, his first conscious thought was to ask who got this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He shuffled over to his computer and waited in a sleepy stupor as he checked the Internet for news of the announcement.
As he opened his Web browser, he saw a name: Martin Chalfie.
A professor at Columbia, Chalfie and two other scientists took this year’s Nobel for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein found in the crystal jelly—a bioluminescent jellyfish found off the west coast of the United States. The protein has since become one of the most important tools of molecular biology for cracking open the secret of cell processes.
The fluorescent proteins are now commonly used to study the growth and development of nerve cells damaged during Alzheimer’s, for example, or cancer cells.
Chalfie will split the $1.4 million prize—awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences—with Roger Y. Tsien ’72, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Osamu Shimomura, an emeritus professor at Boston University Medical School.
“You have friends who say [they] think you should get this—and you really hope that they are going to be right,” Chalfie said in a phone interview. “But you never really assume that this is going to happen.”
The bearer of good news from Sweden did leave a message, but Chalfie said that he did not think to check the machine when he awoke.
“I guess my phone wasn’t working very well,” Chalfie said, chuckling as he quipped, “I guess that’s going to be the news item.”
Biologists have long known that some sea creatures glow in the dark. Shimomura, who now resides in Falmouth, Mass., asked a surprisingly simple question—how do different organisms produce light?
The Japanese scientist joined a researcher from Princeton, Frank Johnson, to successfully isolated a specific glowing protein, now known as the GFP, in the crystal jelly in 1962.
“This was basic research,” Chalfie said. “Trying to understand fundamental processes that take place as organisms develop and how their various cells interact with one another—one can see what happens with those cells by asking questions about the fundamentals of biology.”
J. Woodland Hastings, a Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology affectionately nicknamed “Woody,” who is known for his work in bioluminescence, said that though basic research may seem unimportant, it has led to findings applicable to many important problems in science.
“Many have often failed to appreciate the importance of basic knowledge,” Hastings said, adding that scientists should not follow Republican presidential nominee John McCain in deprecating the study of DNA in bears. (While McCain has mockingly said in recent weeks that he didn’t know if the research were due to “a paternity issue or a criminal issue,” Hastings applauded the fact that the federal government has been supportive of fundamental science research in the past.)
Hastings added that he knew Tsien, a “remarkable guy” when the budding scientist was an undergraduate at the College, although he had never taught Tsien.
Tsien, who won first prize in the national Westinghouse talent search at the age of 16, entered the Ivy gates as a freshman set on devoting his studies to the hard sciences.
His freshman roommate, Herman C. Quirmbach ’72, described Tsien as “incredibly brilliant.”
“It’s probably not an exaggeration to say he’s the smartest person I ever met,” said Quirmbach, now an economics professor at Iowa State University and a Democratic member of the Iowa Senate. “And I have met a lot of brilliant people.”
Chalfie, who was just graduating when Tsien matriculated at the College, was not as convinced that science would be the career he would take.
A biochemistry concentrator, Chalfie said that he worked in a laboratory the summer after his junior year at the College.
“It was a complete and utter failure,” Chalfie said. “It was so disheartening to completely fail that I decided I shouldn’t be in biology.”
Chalfie then finished up his senior year and taught high school for a couple years before working with a researcher at Yale. The experience was far less miserable, and Chalfie received his PhD in physiology from Harvard in 1977.
“I guess I wasn’t a complete failure,” Chalfie said.
Paul S. Weinberg ’69, who was Chalfie’s freshman roommate in Wigglesworth Hall, best remembers the Nobel laureate as funny and gregarious.
“Oh my god!” Weinberg exclaimed when he heard the news of Chalife’s Nobel prize. Now a trial lawyer at a law firm in Northampton, Mass., Weinberg said after a pensive pause that he did not remember Chalfie as a scientist during their time together at the College.
“He would always identify himself as a swimmer—Marty was on the Harvard swim team,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg recalled that he once walked in on Chalfie shaving his legs in preparation for a swim meet.
“It was about the weirdest thing you could ever imagine,” Weinberg said. He then excused himself from the interview to give his former roommate a call.
—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at email@example.com.