Nobel Chemist Roger Y. Tsien

Roger Y. Tsien revolutionized the world of cell and neurobiology by enabling scientists to study and track the movement of cells in real time. Awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry, Tsien’s work in developing the green fluorescent protein will allow scientists to better understand diseases like Alzheimers and cancer, as well as assist in stem cell research.

Roger Tsien was born February 1, 1952 in New York City to a family of chemists and engineers. His father Hsue-Chu Tsien was a mechanical engineer, and both of his mother’s brothers were engineering professors at MIT. His brother Richard Tsien is also a scientist at Stanford. It seemed Tsien was predestined to pursue science.

Tsien grew up in Livingston, New Jersey and suffered from asthma as a child. While other boys kicked around soccer balls after school, Tsien could be found in his basement laboratory conducting chemistry experiments for hours on end. At 16, he won first prize in the nationwide Westinghouse talent search with his investigation on how metals bind to thiocyanate.

Tsien attended Harvard University on a National Merit Scholarship and graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and physics in 1972. He went on to receive his PhD in physiology from Churchill College, University of Cambridge in 1977. From 1982 to 1989 Tsien was a faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, before settling down in 1989 at the University of California, San Diego as a Professor of Pharmacology and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

In 2008 Tsien shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two other chemists for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein GFP. Their discovery was derived from a common sea-dwelling jellyfish called the crystal jelly. The GFP is the substance that allows jellyfish to glow in the dark — the same property that now enables scientists to mark and track individual molecules through a live organism.

Scientists are no longer limited to just the color green. Tsien’s research has successfully mutated GFP to a variety of colors including red, blue, purple and yellow, allowing scientists to follow multiple proteins simultaneously. Even more remarkable is Tsien’s formulation of proteins that change colors as conditions change. These seemingly simple devices open up vast possibilities for researchers. Scientists are now able to study the effects of DNA manipulation at the cellular level in real time, allowing a better understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer on a whole new level.

Tsien admits to a love of pretty colors. He believes that “your science should ideally feed the deeper parts of your personality, to provide some intrinsic pleasure to tide you over the inevitable periods of discouragement.”

Tsien devotes his spare time to working with and inspiring high school science students in his lab through hands on experiments. Tsien’s current work focuses on developing a new way to image and deliver specially targeted drugs to cancer tumors. He states that the next step in his career is to do something “clinically relevant, with cancer being “the ultimate challenge.”