Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Man Who Set Stage for a Nobel Now Lives a Life Outside Science

In a couple of months, Roger Y. Tsien and Martin Chalfie will head to Stockholm to collect the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and $450,000 each in prize money in recognition of their development of a revolutionary technique that lights up the inner workings of living cells. Meanwhile, the scientist who provided the essential piece that made Dr. Tsien’s and Dr. Chalfie’s work possible — a jellyfish gene that produces a fluorescent protein — is out of science.

After leaving Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, he applied for a 5-year grant, didn't get it, but did get a 2-year grant. That was enough to identify the gene, but not conduct extensive research thereafter.

Dr. Chalfie and Dr. Tsien independently contacted Dr. Prasher asking about the jellyfish gene. Dr. Prasher generously shared the gene with both of them.

And they went on to win the Nobel Prize. Prasher worked for the USDA, but left. Again, he was not happy, experiencing the beginning of bouts of depression. “I was not happy with management there, so I looked for another position,” he said.

I know that circumstance personally. Prasher found work with a NASA subcontractor, liked it, but the funding ended. He stayed in Huntsville, Alabama, but his job choices were very limited.

“The amount of life science done here is very limited,” he said. The depression returned. “That’s been a serious problem off and on, but anyone who doesn’t have a job has that problem,” Dr. Prasher said. “If they don’t, there’s a problem with them. Or they’re independently wealthy.”

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