OFFICE OF THE VICE CHANCELLOR – HEALTH SCIENCES
August 31, 2016
It is with great sorrow that we announce the death of Roger Tsien, PhD, our colleague in the School of Medicine and across campus for 27 years. Roger died August 24 in Eugene, Oregon. He was 64.
Roger is best known, of course, as co-winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work with Osamu Shimomura and Martin Chalfie. Together they collaborated to discover and develop green fluorescent protein (GFP), derived from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, as a new and soon-indispensable research tool. Shimomura identified the crucial jellyfish protein and revealed that it glowed bright green under ultraviolet light. Chalfie showed how it could be used as a biological marker. Combining his deep skills in chemistry and biology, Tsien found ways to make GFP glow more brightly and consistently; then he created a full palette of fluorescent proteins that scientists could use to track different cellular processes at the same time. GFPs have become a fundamental fixture in life sciences labs around the world, allowing researchers to look into cells or whole animals, to watch molecules interact in real-time and ask questions once thought impossible.
Tsien was never content to rest upon his Nobel laurels. He wanted his research to be clinically relevant. Working with colleagues like Quyen T. Nguyen, MD, PhD, associate professor of head and neck surgery at UC San Diego Health, Tsien helped develop experimental injectable fluorescent peptides that cause hard-to-see peripheral nerves to glow, allowing surgeons to avoid them when removing damaged or cancerous tissues.
As a distinguished Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Tsien sought to better visualize cancer in other ways — or maybe treat it. He and colleagues have designed U-shaped peptides able to carry either imaging molecules or chemotherapy drugs to targeted cancer cells. His lab created a new generation of fast-acting fluorescent dyes that optically highlight electrical activity in neuronal membranes, deciphering how brain cells function and interact. And using a modified plant protein, he and colleagues created a new type of genetic tag visible under an electron microscope (EM), allowing researchers to see life in unprecedented detail.
As much as we honor Roger’s enduring contributions to science, we remember and celebrate too the man. He was invariably kind, gracious and humble, generous with his time and unmatched intellect. Roger was an extraordinary man: kind, generous, gracious, and always the consummate scientist pushing the limits of his work to expand the possibilities of science. He was a rare talent we cannot replace and will be greatly missed and never forgotten.
Roger Yonchien Tsien was born February 1, 1952 in New York City, the third son of immigrant parents. He was a scientist from early childhood, sketching out chemistry experiments as an 8-year-old in a notebook now kept in the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. His first Boy Scout merit badge was in chemistry. In 1968 at the age of 16, he took first prize in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search for high school seniors. He attended Harvard College, graduating summa cum laude in chemistry and physics in 1972, then earned his doctorate in physiology in 1977 at the University of Cambridge in England. Before coming to UC San Diego in 1989, he worked as a research assistant in Cambridge and then as a junior professor at UC Berkeley.
Tsien was a member of the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. Among his awards: the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention, the Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, the Max Delbruck Medal in Molecular Medicine, the Wolf Prize and the Keio Medical Science Prize.
Roger’s vision was vast and yet incredibly precise. He saw both the big picture, but also the incredible need to see and understand — in glorious color — all of the infinitesimal details that make it up, that make up life.
Wendy, Tsien’s wife said: “He was ahead of us all. He was ever the adventurer, the pathfinder, the free and soaring spirit. Courage, determination, creativity and resourcefulness were hallmarks of his character. He accomplished much. He will not be forgotten.”
A memorial for the campus to celebrate Roger’s work and life will be held at a later date.