A tale of two Nobel Laureates

Martin Chalfie while giving a talk at the University of Chicago on June 11, 2015.

Martin Chalfie while giving a talk at the University of Chicago on June 11, 2015.

The Tim Hunt comments from last week set off a firestorm of ridicule, indignation and despair. In the wake of this depressing reminder of the challenges ahead for women and men in science, I was thrilled to learn that Martin Chalfie, winner of a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, was coming to give a talk. From long ago interactions, I knew Dr Chalfie to be an approachable, down-to-earth, nice man and was eager to hear his talk. I gathered all of my trainees, a group that is mostly women, and off we went.

From the get-go, Dr Chalfie was engaging, humorous, on point, and warm. Receiving the Nobel Prize has enabled him to give talks that are broad overviews and also include some degree of philosophical musings.

Dr Chalfie spoke on GFP or green fluorescent protein, which was the work for which he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien in 2008. What followed was a coherent, highly entertaining tour through five decades of GFP research from its beginnings with Dr Shimomura’s studies of bioluminescent sea creatures, most notably the jellyfish, to recent attempts to use GFP to “light up” the TNT in land mines. The success of this latter application of GFP remains unclear. The science that Dr Chalfie discussed was fun and interesting but here I want to focus on the broader lessons that I gleaned from his talk. First Dr Chalfie was generous in talking about the contributions of lab members, collaborators, and scientists who did experiments that “I wish I had done.” The names of these individuals were listed, on the appropriate data slide, in a different color for each category of contributor. The talk included a healthy split of work from the Chalfie laboratory and work from elsewhere. The generosity with which Dr Chalfie approached his scientific history was as understated as it was obvious and as a result, deeply inspiring. My students and I left the talk feeling uplifted and energized, washed over in feel-good vibes.

Dr Chalfie framed his talk with philosophical musings of 1) what he thought about scientists before his life in science and 2) what his research has taught him to be true. Here is what he “was taught about scientists (1960s)”:

  • Scientists are geniuses (scientific ability is innate)
  • Scientists’ experiments work all the time
  • Scientists use the scientific method and are purposeful
  • Scientists work alone although they may have an assistant
  • Scientists (with rare exceptions) are white men

And here is how Dr Chalfie summarized what he now understands about science after a life in the scientific trenches:

  • Scientific success comes via many routes
  • Many (most) discoveries are accidental
  • Ignorance, stubbornness, and a willingness to try help
  • Scientific progress is cumulative
  • University and grant support was essential
  • Students and postdocs are the lab innovators
  • All life should be studied; not just model organisms
  • Fundamental research is essential

I want to highlight just a few of these. I could not agree more with the statement that “Most discoveries are accidental.” I think of them as serendipity, a concept that I have come to view as more parts readiness than happenstance. In other words, serendipity only happens to the receptive mind and it is that subconscious receptivity that drives the show. Why is it important that most discoveries are not intentional or planned? Well when we combine this observation with another – grant support is essential – we run into a problem. Planning discoveries is an oxymoron. Outlining the expected results of detailed experiments and building an experimental ladder across five years is an exercise in something which is not science and cannot stand in for scientific progress. I have always thought of grant-writing as akin to business planning and about as far away from the joys of science as can be. But I digress.

I also really appreciated Dr Chalfie’s point that “All life should be studied,” an homage to the magnificent bioluminescent creatures of the sea that were the essential fertile ground for GFP’s discovery. This point reminds me of the final statement in a Nobel Prize lecture…..by Tim Hunt. What Dr Hunt said was, “I would just like to remind the medical community here who tend think that the proper study of mankind is man, that our original concept of the cell cycle with all its glorious detail came from the study of …. [pause] onion roots.”

I listened to Dr Hunt’s Nobel Laureate (57-minute) speech because a friend suggested to me that Dr Hunt’s sexist outburst could be the first sign of a dementia. This idea immediately struck me as highly reasonable. The outburst was so ridiculous and very difficult to reconcile with a man in an on-going marriage with a female University College London Professor. I wanted more insight into the man and therefore listened to Dr Hunt’s Nobel Prize lecture. I can say that I heard nothing damning. He comes across as quirky and nerdy, in a good way. He does not have the obvious generosity toward others that was clearly evident from Dr Chalfie but many don’t. There simply was nothing to suggest that beneath his quirky veneer beat the brain of a crazy sexist. I have no idea about the status of Dr Hunt’s brain and truly hope, for his sake and the sake of his loved ones, that he is healthy. Yet the possibility exists that his rants are more reflective of disease than of who Dr Hunt has been in his life.

I want to end with the quote that Dr Chalfie ended his talk with. This quote comes from congressional testimony by Robert R Wilson, an American physicist and the first director of Fermilab just outside of Chicago. Dr Wilson was asked (in 1969) to justify the high cost of constructing the Fermi particle accelerator. He was pressed repeatedly to enumerate the benefits for national defense offered by this very expensive device. Finally, Dr Wilson said the following.

Martin Chalfie's final slide showed this quote from Robert Wilson.

Martin Chalfie’s final slide showed this quote from Robert Wilson.

In essence, Dr Wilson admitted that the accelerator had nothing but everything to do with who we are. That a people who pursue fundamental understanding of their world and themselves are people worthy of defending. And with that I close in hopes that we continue to value all efforts aimed at drawing back the curtains of ignorance shrouding our beautiful world and our complex human selves.

1 Comment »

  1. This is a very interesting take on the faux pas stated by Dr. Hunt. I agree in that most were surprised considering who his wife is and her achievements in the sciences. I wouldn’t be surprised if your assumption was accurate as we tend to ignore his age and health in the overall evaluation of these matters, just merely what was said. The media especially loves to take what was said and run with it. I remember hearing the commentary and thinking maybe he just went back to a negative experience with a particular female and ran with it but I haven’t heard the entire lecture to know for sure. This is a great take, I never would have thought of that, very observant! Have a great one Professor Mason! -Iva

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