Contributors to groundbreaking discoveries come and go, leaving their legacies behind. Sometimes, we are lucky to live in the same time as them. Other times, we are lucky to hear them speak in person.
Martin Chalfie shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien for the “discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein”, or GFP, and spoke at Colorado State University Monday in an event called “GFP: Lighting up Life.”
GFP allows researchers to see cellular processes inside and outside of the living organisms in real time.
“Before the GFP story started, people really did not have a good way of watching things happen,” Chalfie said. “What you would get were fixed tissues that had things happening at different stages, and you would try to put them together.”
During his talk, Chalfie dispelled some common myths about scientists and the scientific process. One of those myths is the notion that “all scientists are geniuses,” who do only exciting things and whose experiments work all of the time.
He drew a contrast to that theory by telling the story of Osamu Shimomura, and the numerous failed attempts he has had before he was finally able to isolate the bioluminescent protein in jellyfish.
At the age of 16, Shimomura was told he had to leave his city of Nagasaki, Japan and go work at a factory in a town across the adjacent mountains. The move ended up saving his life as the year was 1945, the same year when the atomic bomb destroyed his city, Chalfie said.
Shimomura eventually went to pharmacy school, after which he worked as a technician. He was later invited to the United States to conduct research on how the jellyfish Aequorea victoria is able to produce fluorescent light. One day, after an entire summer of fruitless efforts and numerous jellyfish, he tossed some of the jellyfish into the sink.
“This is where the scientific method really comes in,” Chalfie said.
Shimomura noticed that the jellyfish were glowing inside the sink, Chalfie said. Shimomura then realized that it were the calcium ions from seawater that were triggering the glow.
Some scientists or science students get discouraged after failed research initiatives or less-than-perfect grades. Chalfie challenged the myth about the science genius further when he talked about his academic record.
“I’m not going to show you my grades from college,” Chalfie said. “I’ll just tell you that I find it wonderfully ironic that I had the Nobel Prize in chemistry and I don’t have a single grade in chemistry above a C plus,” he said.
Chalfie talked about the various people who contributed to the GFP research.
The Nobel Prize can be shared by a maximum of three people, but there are many more people that are integral to scientific discoveries such as the GFP, Chalfie said.
“For me, the scientific process is cumulative,” he said.
It is the people who are making new discoveries with the fluorescent protein that have made GFP important, Chalfie said, “not the work of one or two people.”
If a green fluorescent light were used to track the attendees who can appreciate the scientific details, it would stretch far beyond the CSU campus to places like Wyoming.
“One of my favorite things he said is when he talked about C. elegans,” said Sara Cisneros, a senior molecular biology student who works in a worm lab at the University of Wyoming. “He didn’t consider it a model organism; he considered it a pioneer organism. It thought that was kind of cool.”
Collegian reporter Eleonora Yurkevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.