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Roger Tsien (STS 1968), a Science Talent Search first place winner and 2008 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, recently shared his thoughts on science and life with the Intel STS 2010 Finalists at the annual Alumni Dinner held during the Intel Science Talent Institute in Washington, D.C. Tsien won the Westinghouse STS award when he was just 16 for a project that investigated the thiocyanate ion and how it forms when it acts as a bridge between metal atoms in complex molecules. “What impressed me most about Dr. Tsien was his humility and openness with Finalists,” said Yale Fan (Intel STS 2010), the ninth place winner. At the Alumni Dinner, Tsien explained how he was drawn to the interesting colors that resulted from chemical reactions. Tsien took that interest to Harvard where he earned a B.S. in chemistry and physics. He encouraged this year’s Finalists to take advantage of the many other courses offered in college: at Harvard, he took classes in photography and music because, “science isn’t everything.”
Tsien also emphasized that Finalists should not do science for the purpose of winning prizes and recognition. Instead, he advised that they find things about which they are passionate, and persevere.
“He talked about how important it was to enjoy what you were doing; to have passion about the study because science requires an immense amount of dedication, and this level of concentration can only be given if the experimenter is truly passionate about something,” said Lori Ying (Intel STS 2010). “For me, his speech really conveyed how work isn’t work if you enjoy it.”
While Tsien was often bored with traditional chemistry courses, he enjoyed conducting chemistry experiments at home from a young age. This natural interest motivated him to do the research and experimentation that eventually earned him a Nobel Prize. He shared the Nobel with Martin Chalfie and Osamu Shimomura for their work borrowing a protein from jellyfish to allow cells to glow, which has numerous practical applications such as making it easier for surgeons to see tumors. As Tsien noted in his presentation to Finalists, his life’s work can be traced back to his initial interest in the amazing colors chemistry interactions can create.
“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘do what you love’ as primary advice for deciding what to do with my life,” said eighth place winner Kate Rudolph (Intel STS 2010). “Dr. Tsien went the logical next step and advised to find something you were interested in that could actually help other people, and I think that’s an essential perspective that is often missing from ‘advice’. He did what he loved, and then found a way to make it help people by tagging cancer cells with fluorescent proteins — and is actually helping to increase survival rates of cancer surgeries!”
In the mid 1950s in Indiana, Roger Cuffey set up two telescopes on his front porch in order to view Mars during close approaches. He used these observations, along with comparisons to previous maps, to create detailed surface maps of the planet and its large lava fields that were surrounded by dusty deserts. He submitted this work to the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (now the Intel Science Talent Search (STS)) and became a Finalist in 1957.
His effort inspired his two younger sisters to also submit projects to the competition. His sister Hazel Reita Schbert (nee Cuffey) became an STS Finalist in 1960 for her work on raising slime molds. Like Roger’s telescopes that dominated the family porch, the Petri dishes containing Hazel’s slime molds were scattered around the house as she observed their life cycles. His other sister, Irene Priscilla Franklin (nee Cuffey), was a semifinalist in 1963 for her work raising silk worms and studying what stimulated them during each life cycle.
Roger credits their parents, first generation immigrants who met at Harvard while both were studying Astronomy, for driving his family toward academic success. “My mother was very insistent that we do well in school,” he says.
And the family tradition didn’t stop with him and his sisters. A generation later, both of Roger’s sons also submitted projects to STS and became Finalists. Roger explains that the competition “was a real help in my own career development,”—he went on to teach Paleontology at Pennsylvania State for almost four decades—so he encouraged his sons to think about projects that might be suitable for STS. Clifford Cuffey, a 1986 STS Finalist, studied fossil shells on rocks, and Kurt Cuffey, a 1988 STS Finalists, observed how glacier valleys formed in Glacier National Park in Montana.
Roger credits the competition with motivating his sons to pursue independent scientific research and says it created a goal for them in high school. More than 20 years later, both sons work in fields related to their STS projects. Cliff is a Petroleum Exploration Geologist for Chevron and he teaches geology and astronomy part-time at Midland College in Texas. Kurt also shares his knowledge with the next generation of scientists as a professor of glaciology and geomorphology at the University of California at Berkeley, where he is also the chair of the Geography Department. “[STS] was a stimulus that underscored their career choice,” Roger says. “It was the chance to do something real.”
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