When the phone rang early one morning, the sound was too faint to wake up Martin Chalfie.
Chalfie, chair of the department of biological sciences at Columbia, knew the Nobel Prize committee would be announcing the recipient of the 2008 prize for chemistry that morning. But he was surprised when he saw his own name—and was hit with a sudden flood of phone calls and emails.
Since winning the Nobel Prize two years ago, Chalfie has been faced with the onslaught of media and critical attention that comes with the award. While he said he enjoys perks like interviews, he still contemplates how to best use his relatively new platform.
“I started to think about what this notoriety and attention could be used for. I’m still thinking about that. It is still new for me,” he said.
Chalfie has decided to use his fame to reach out to not only undergraduates, but also high school and elementary school students. “That chance to promote doing science and being excited about science and giving students encouragement is relatively easy to do when given the opportunity. That opportunity hadn’t been there,” he explained.
He added that promoting science education also “gives me the opportunity to get my point across.”
Chalfie received the Nobel Prize with Osamu Shimomura, a senior scientist emeritus and Corporation member at the Marine Biological Laboratory and Roger Tsien, professor at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California, San Diego. Even though Chalfie, Tsien, and Shimomura won the prize, the three scientists did not work together. The contribution that each person made was at different times and for different aspects of the green fluorescent protein. “This showed that scientific discovery is a group effort in which you don’t have to be together at the same time, but is rather an accumulated effort over time that builds up,” said Chalfie.
For Chalfie, the work on the protein was actually a digression—it was not the main focus of his research at the time. Chalfie’s research is the study of nerve cell development and function. He is particularly interested in the types of controls needed to make individual types of nerve cells, and he examines how cell fate is regulated and determined.
Chalfie is currently investigating how a large set of senses work at a molecular level. He is specifically interested in the mechanical senses in which some sort of physical movement of the cell is the signal such as in hearing, balance, and stretch. Chalfie is using genetic techniques that involve GFP labeling of the cell in order to see the molecular entities that may be involved in mechanical sensing in transparent worms called C. elegans.
“We treat the animals with a chemical to cause mutations and then look at the progeny of the mutated animals and see which ones do not respond to touch. We see if they do not respond to touch by tickling the animal with an eyebrow hair,” Chalfie described. Through such an experimental setup, Chalfie discovered several molecules known as “transducers” that respond to a mechanical signal.
To carry out the experiments, Chalfie used a team of students and postdoctoral fellows. In his effort to promote science research, Chalfie mentors undergraduate students. “They clearly do not bring in expertise, but they bring in enthusiasm. I strongly feel undergraduates should start in their first year. It gives them a home—a chance to go deeper and to come up with something meaningful. Enthusiasm and involvement is what I hope to see in an undergraduate,” said Chalfie.
Aaron Scheffler, CC ’11 and a student who has been working in Chalfie’s lab for over a year, said he finds Chalfie’s own undergraduate experience in a lab to be instructive. Scheffler recounted a story about Chalfie’s undergraduate lab experience, when the future Nobel Prize winner made mistakes in several experiments and took time off, working in a retail store, before returning to school. “I think he is a great example of how Nobel Laureates can be normal people who make mistakes and deviate from the trodden path,” Scheffler said in an e-mail.
Samuel Lee, SEAS ’10, has been working for Chalfie for four years. “The lab provided me with a good basis of learning techniques and I am appreciative of it,” said Lee. He went on to say that the environment in the laboratory when Chalfie learned he was a Nobel Prize recipient was full of excitement and “boosted up the spirit” of the lab.
Scheffler said that the lab had a celebratory lunch with Chalfie following the award. Since it was potluck style, Scheffler brought in cookies with green frosting, an homage to Chalfie’s use of GFP. “Although I am sure he received thousands of emails during this period, Dr. Chalfie took the time and wrote me an email thanking me for the green cookies, which he assured me were delicious,” said Scheffler.
When Scheffler met Chalfie for the first time, he was struck by how much Chalfie seemed to miss teaching undergraduates—though it may be that his success in research will make him more visible to those particular students. “Few professors, let alone Nobel Prize winners, would feel that they enjoyed teaching undergrads, or take the time to write a thank you note for some cookies,” Scheffler said.