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Roger Tsien illuminates life for Intel STS 2010 finalists

By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Coordinator, Society for Science & the Public

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!”

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