MARTIN CHALFIE: The chairman of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences was recently awarded, along with Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien, this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on green fluorescent protein (GFP). Image: Courtesy of Columbia University
On October 8, Martin Chalfie, chairman of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences, got the call that every scientist wants to receive—only he slept right through it. The Nobel Foundation was ringing him at about 6 A.M. (in New York City) to let him know they had just awarded him, along Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien, this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on green fluorescent protein (GFP). A few minutes after the phone stopped ringing, Chalfie logged onto the Nobel Foundation's Web site to see who they had honored this year, only to find himself in the winner's circle for a tool he had helped develop to let scientists illuminate and study living cells in real time.
We sat down with Chalfie in his office on Columbia's campus to discuss the Nobel, GFP and his other research.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
I know you've told the story of what happened the morning of the Nobel announcement many times already, but I wanted to hear it again. You weren't expecting the call?
No, I wasn't expecting it. I think people wonder whether they're going to be called. Because I'm the chair of a biology department, and it's something that's been used extensively in biology, there was some question of whether it would have been a chemistry prize. You don't anticipate it, but you do wonder. October comes around, you start to wonder about these things. Turned out that a couple of days before I had been reviewing some messages on our home phone, which is not in our bedroom but in the kitchen. I must have pressed a button [because] all of a sudden we had a different ring, and it was a much fainter ring than usual. I was thinking, "I really should change that back to the old ring." I know that when they announce these things, they call people at five o'clock in the morning. When I got up [on October 8], I looked at my watch and it was 10 after six. Like I said before, I wanted to see who the "schnook" was who won the prize. I opened up my laptop and checked online and I saw my name. I told my wife, "I think it's happened." I turned out to be the schnook.
Is there any indication ahead of time that you're being strongly considered for the prize?
No, it's completely secret and unknown; I can attest to that. I've had friends and colleagues who say, "Maybe this year," and if they say that enough you, you start to think it might be true. The day before [this year's announcement], I had actually gotten an e-mail from a [student in China] who was working on [Caenorhabditis elegans] who wanted a copy of my paper [the 1994 paper on GFP that appeared on the cover of Science]. In his e-mail, he said, "Several of us have been discussing who will get the chemistry prize tomorrow, and we think it should go to Shimomura and Tsien." And that was it. I sent him a .pdf of the article and said thanks and told him maybe they should consider Douglas Prasher, too. So maybe he had some sort of inside line, or maybe he was just hopeful. [laughs] There's no inkling that these things are going to happen, it's a little like reading tea leaves.
You first heard about GFP during a neurobiology lecture given by Paul Brehm (a former Tufts University researcher now at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook University) at Columbia University in 1989. Did you go to this lecture with the thinking that you would discover a tool that you could use for your C. elegans work?
Absolutely not. Paul had been invited from Tufts to talk to us. I went to the seminar not expecting to hear anything about this. Frankly, I don't remember anything else about his seminar because I was so excited about the possibility of doing this experiment. Because I had been thinking about transparent animals for about 12 years before this … I got very excited about the possibility that we could use this in C. elegans.