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September 22, 2009

A CONVERSATION WITH MARTIN CHALFIE

Watching Life in Real Time


By CLAUDIA DREIFUS

Q. IS IT TRUE YOU SLEPT PAST THE PHONE CALL INFORMING YOU OF THE NOBEL PRIZE?

A. It’s true. You know, if you’re fortunate enough to do good work, people do this terrible thing to you —
they start saying, “Hey, you might get the Nobel Prize.” Then, when the first week in October rolls around,
you lose a little sleep.

Last October, I didn’t sleep well the night before they announced the medicine prize. But no call came.
They announce the chemistry prize two days later. Well, on that night, I heard this phone ringing in the
distance but assumed it was a neighbor’s. So I woke at 10 after 6 the next morning and assumed the
chemistry prize had gone to someone else. I then opened my laptop and went to Nobelprize.org to see who
the schnook was who’d gotten it. And there I saw my name along — along with Osamu Shimomura’s and
Roger Tsien’s. I was the schnook! I woke my wife, Tulle: “It’s happened.” She said, “What? Have we
overslept taking our daughter to school?”

Then, the phone really started ringing. It was a reporter from The A.P. who said she was in front of our
apartment and wanted to get a picture of me. I said, “I’m in my pajamas.” She said, “That’s exactly the
photo I want.” I said, “But you’re not going to get it.”

Q. YOU’RE A BIOLOGIST. WERE YOU SURPRISED TO WIN THE CHEMISTRY NOBEL?

A. The prize was really for the molecule. In 1962, Osamu Shimomura discovered a protein in a jellyfish that
caused it to glow bright green. With colleagues, 30 years later, I was able to insert this G.F.P. gene into
bacteria and make them turn green. Once we did that, it opened up the possibility of using G.F.P. as a kind
of natural flashlight inside of animals and plants that allows us to see cells or parts of them. Roger Tsien
took it all further by creating an entire palette of colors from G.F.P., which gives us tags that permit us to
watch even more processes as they occur. The breakthrough is that we can now watch life in real time.

Q. HOW DID YOU FIRST COME TO STUDY G.F.P.?

A. I actually know the day I first heard about it. That’s because I have a piece of paper full of excited notes
I’d taken — April 25, 1989. We have a seminar series here and neurobiologist Paul Brehm was the invited
speaker. In his introduction, he mentioned how Osamu Shimomura was studying this jellyfish that has a
protein that gives off a green light when you shine ultraviolet on it.

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A Conversation With Martin Chalfie - Watching Life in Real Time - Interview - NYTimes.com

For a decade, I had been studying a transparent worm, the C. elegans. I immediately thought, if you could
put the G.F.P. gene into C. elegans, you’d then be able to see biological processes in live animals. Until
then, we had to kill them and prepare their tissues chemically to visualize proteins or active genes within
cells. But this view of life was static: we wanted to watch the progression of events as cells change over
time. I was so excited. For the rest of the Brehm’s lecture, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I kept
fantasizing about all the wonderful things we could do.

I spent the next day trying to find out who else was working on G.F.P. Douglas Prasher, it turned out, was
trying to clone the DNA. We immediately agreed to work together. But then because of a series of
misunderstandings, we lost touch. He thought I’d dropped out of science. In 1992, we reconnected, and a
month later, using DNA he’d sent us, we had inserted the protein into E. coli, which turned green when we
shined ultraviolet light on it. We were then able to do the same thing with C. elegans.

Q. HOW DID A NOBEL PRIZE CHANGE YOUR LIFE?

A. The main thing is that it turned me into someone who is listened to. People don’t generally listen to
scientists much. At the news conference Columbia gave the day we won, I stated I was immediately signing
a petition of Nobel laureates supporting Barack Obama for president; this was only a few weeks before the
election. A week earlier, no one would have cared who I was voting for.

But everything else is pretty much the same. I’m the chair of a biology department, and I still have to find
funding and space for students. I still have to write grants for my research, which get judged like anyone
else’s. No one at the N.I.H. goes, “Oh, he has a Nobel, we should give him money.”

Q. WHY DO YOU THINK THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION MADE BIOLOGY RESEARCH AN


IMPORTANT PIECE OF THE ECONOMIC STIMULUS PACKAGE? DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION,
THE W.P.A. HAD PEOPLE PAINT MURALS IN PUBLIC SPACES AND BUILD POST OFFICES.

A. It’s because biological research is very labor intensive — this is a jobs program. There’s also money for
remodeling laboratories and buying new equipment, which creates jobs outside of academia. The dividend
here is not pleasing public spaces but insights into biological functions, disease and agriculture. In my lab,
we didn’t apply for stimulus money because our regular grant was up for renewal. It seemed grabby to
apply for both. But I know of three people in the department whose jobs were saved by the stimulus.

Q. GETTING BACK TO YOUR NOBEL, HOW DID YOU PREPARE FOR THE FORMAL CEREMONY IN
STOCKHOLM?

A. My friend Bob Horvitz, who got the medicine prize in 2002, tried to prepare me. He said, “You’ll go to a
rehearsal before the ceremony and they’ll show you a video of Paul Nurse (the head of Rockefeller
University) accepting his prize because they want to show you what not to do.” Apparently, you’re supposed
to walk up to the king, accept your medal, shake his hand and bow to the king and to the electors. Then,
you bow to the audience. Paul had done this, but when he got back to his chair, he lifted his arms à la

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/science/22conv.html?hpw=&pagewanted=print[9/22/2009 8:45:11 AM]


A Conversation With Martin Chalfie - Watching Life in Real Time - Interview - NYTimes.com

Rocky, and went, “Yeeess!” They apparently did not approve of this.

When we got to Stockholm, they didn’t show us the Paul Nurse video. At the ceremony, after I bowed to the
king, the electors and the audience, I saw my wife and daughter in the third row, and I blew them a kiss.
Later, at a reception, we met a Countess Alice who told us, “In all the years I’ve attended the ceremonies,
I’ve never seen anyone do that!” So now, I fear they may start showing my video as the example of what not
to do.

Q. ON OCT. 5, THEY WILL START ANNOUNCING THE NAMES OF THE 2009 NOBELISTS. DO YOU
HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR THEM?

A. The same advice I got: Enjoy it.

Every year, in the first week of October, a committee of dignitaries in Stockholm announces the Nobel
Prizes in the sciences. The winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year were Osamu Shimomura,
Roger Y. Tsien and Martin Chalfie for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein.
“With the aid of G.F.P.,” the committee said, “researchers have developed ways to watch processes that
were previously invisible, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or how cancer cells spread.”
We spoke with Dr. Chalfie, 62, last month at his offices at Columbia University, where he heads the
biological sciences department. An edited and condensed version of a three-hour interview follows.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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