GFP.jpgJohn Takao Collier writes:
A few months ago my 11 year old daughter (we’ll call her “E”) and I attended a lecture at Fermilab on “Green Fluorescent Protein” (GFP).  The talk was given by Martin Chalfie, chair of the department of biological sciences at Columbia University.  Dr. Chalfie shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Osamu Shimomura and Roger Y. Tsien “for the discovery and development of GFP”.  GFP has turned out to be an incredibly powerful biochemical tool; with it you can tag a gene and actually see in real-time when the gene is “on” or “off”. This ability can be used for biosensors or to see if genes are expressed under particular conditions.  You can also buy glowing zebra fish at Wal-Mart based on GFP.  If your discovery swims around in an aquarium at Wal-Mart, it’s got to be worthy for a Nobel Prize.
Dr. Chalfie peppered the lecture with amusing anecdotes.  For example, he slept through the phone call from the Nobel Prize committee and the next morning he thought to himself “OK, who’s the schnook that got the Prize this time?”  He then checked the Nobel Prize web site and discovered that he was the schnook.  Makes me think that a new reality show is in order; instead of “Jersey Shore” with “Snooki”, maybe SciCheer fans would enjoy “Columbia University  Shore” starring “Schnooki”.
Refreshments (cookies and juice) are served after the lecture; while the audience noshed on crème-filled delights, Dr. Chalfie patiently answered question after question.  Previous events have revealed that the guest of honor is surrounded by a relentless swarm of question-askers; therefore the lecturer can’t get to the goodies.  This may explain why the lecturers are usually slimmer than the audience.
“E” and I did our part to decrease the total number of available calories in the universe.  Done stuffing our faces, we pilfered some SWAG – a copy of the event poster – and headed towards the parking lot.  However, I had a sense of unease, a feeling that some business was not finished.  I finally put my finger on this sense of incompleteness:  Being a science fan-boy, I desperately wanted Dr. Chalfie’s autograph, but was too damned chicken to ask the famous Nobel Laureate for his signature.
In the time-honored tradition of cowards throughout history, I attempted to convince my daughter that she wanted the autograph.  At first she demurred, so I used reason, guile and subterfuge to change her mind.  When that didn’t work, I resorted to whining and pleading.  I pointed out that we had the nice poster that Dr. Chalfie could sign.  After a minute or so of my pitiful begging, she said “OK”, spun her little 4 foot, 8 inch body around and headed back into the building.
I then began to feel uneasy again, but now for a completely different reason:  I was using my daughter to get what I wanted – what kind of crummy father was I, anyway?  And what if the great Nobel Laureate replied to her “Autograph?  YOU want an autograph?  Why should I give an autograph to a mere mortal?  And a short one, at that?”  My poor, dear, wonderful daughter would be psychically scarred for life and, worst of all, it would be my fault.  I would have reached the pantheon of crummy dad-hood.  So, like the coward I am, I began to panic.
I now tried to un-convince her.  “You know,” I said “You don’t have to do this.  Get his autograph only if you really, really, REALLY want to.”  Since E was made of sterner stuff than her lily-livered father she said “I really want the autograph” and continued into the building.  She planted her little self near Dr. Chalfie, waited for a break in the conversation and politely asked for his autograph.
Dr. Chalfie’s face brightened as if he were a fluorescing zebra fish under a UV light; he was absolutely delighted to give “E” an autograph!  Our ballpoint pen wouldn’t write on the poster’s slick surface, so Dr. Chalfie ran around like an excited puppy dog asking people if they had a suitable writing device.
E’s Grandpa (who also attended the lecture) came to the rescue with a roller-ball, and Dr. Chalfie wrote “Good Luck & Keep Glowing!” on E’s poster (see the photo, above).
Now that E broke the ice, the autograph floodgates burst open (well, sort of) since 2 or 3 other adults saw that it was safe to ask.  Adults can be quivering, jelly-legged cowards in the face of imagined social rejection, but a child can show us that you don’t need to have rippling muscles and wear tights to be a science superhero.
Here is the promised, sure-fire recipe for getting an autograph from a Nobel Laureate:

  1. Have paper and (hopefully working) pen ready.
  2. Bake scientist for 20 or 30 years in order to win Nobel prize.
  3. Add one cute, science-interested little girl to ask for the autograph.

P.S. – This has added to our extensive collection of Nobel Laureate autographs; we now have a sum total of one.  Any Nobel Laureates who want to increase our collection are encouraged to send us a signature (preferably on a check, but the back of a envelope will do).
Image credit:  John Takao Collier

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