Chalfie delivers lecture at fourth annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium

Dr. Martin Chalfie, co-winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was invited to campus by UNC's Nobel Laureate Dr. Oliver Smithies.

Chalfie delivers lecture at fourth annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium click to enlarge Dr. Martin Chalfie, co-winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, begins his Smithies Symposium lecture in MBRB.
Chalfie delivers lecture at fourth annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium click to enlarge Dr. Chalfie explains a slide during his keynote address.

On Thursday, Feb. 27, the fourth annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium was held at the School of Medicine’s MBRB Auditorium before a capacity crowd of students, post-doctoral fellows, and other university community members.

The keynote speaker at this year’s symposium was Dr. Martin Chalfie, PhD, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. Chalfie is co-winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work advancing the use of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). His experiments using GFP in worms - tagging individual roundworm cells with the protein - has generated new understandings of GFP and mechanosensation, and may advance research in diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer.  

The title of his symposium address, "Tickling Worms: Surprises from Basic Science," seemed to simplify the complex research he and his colleagues undertook. But according to Dr. Smithies, whose genetics research earned him the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the research is anything but simple. "I'm fascinated by his ability to make something so complicated sound so simple and then to turn it around and make it so complicated again," said Smithies.

Smithies and Chalfie first met at a conference in Lindau, Germany. Chalfie recalls the talk Smithies gave. As he tells it, Smithies shared with the audience a page from his very first lab notebook and described what he'd found. After that, Smithies moved on to his second lab notebook and explained how the research morphed into something unexpected. Smithies would go on to share a page from his notebook from the Saturday prior to the speech.

"He was still doing it," said Chalfie. "He was still excited about his research. He's a very inspirational person not only in terms of what he has accomplished in science, but I think even more in how he approaches science."

Throughout his address, Chalfie highlighted the people who helped advance the GFP research, including the graduate students and postdocs at his lab. 

"I've often said that what really drives labs is not the head of the lab but all the people working in it," he said. "When you have a graduate student or postdoc that you're interacting with as a colleague, it's some of the most enjoyable time one ever has as a scientist, because it's both people working towards one end. There's no ego in it, no hierarchy, it's simply people helping one another answer the same question."

Read about the winners of the post-doctoral research poster forum that followed the lecture here.