GFP Nobel Prize: Chalfie's Role As Principal Investigator (UPDATED)

Oct 19 2008 Published by under Conduct of Science

A commenter over at Abel Phuckwit's had something remarkably ignorant to say about the fact that Chalfie shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year, based on Chalfie's lab being the first to express GFP heterologously in a cell-specific pattern in a metazoan:

Can anyone tell me what did Chalfie do to deserve this recognition? Prasher spent years searching for the GFP gene precisely to see if it would serve as a fluorescent tracer of genes and proteins in organisms other than the jellyfish. When he is almost there, his funding is not renewed and his lab shuts down, so he contacts Chalfie to have the last step (expression in bacteria and eukaryotic cells) done. Chalfie cannot do it himself, but asks competent members of his well funded lab to do it. A few weeks later this is done. Chalfie puts himself first in the author list (even though he has not conceived the project or done the experiments) and gets the credit and a Nobel Prize. For what? Self promotion?

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!! There is so much ingnorance of how biomedical science works packed into that paragraph!!!!!!


The scientists in Chalfie's lab who physically performed the experiments were a technician and an early-stage graduate student working under Chalfie's direction and mentorship. Prasher may have had the idea to express GFP in heterologous organisms, including in cell-specific pattern in a multicellular eukaryote. The technician and graduate student may have physically made the transgenic construct, injected the worms, and photographed the fluorescent images.
Ideas are a dime a fucking dozen, and making transgenic constructs, injecting worms, and taking fluorescence photographs were routine at the time. But Chalfie was the intellectual driving force behind making the shit fucking happen.
I am not saying that Prasher wouldn't have merited sharing the Nobel were it not limited to three people, but Chalfie clearly deserves it. The tech and grad student were carrying out Chalfie's instructions. Chalfie was the first-author and Prasher the last because he and Prasher rightfully shared the two most prominent positions in the author list.
UPDATE: More wackaloonery from Phuckwit's commenters:

The fluorescent thing happened because the grad student and the tech were carrying out Prasher's instructions given to Chalfie: to express the GFP gene in bacteria and animal cells. Chalfie facilitates the research by providing the resources (a couple of months of work from two of his students and technicians) to have this done. He deserves credit for having recognized the potential of Prasher's project and for providing a few resources to have it concluded. Is that enough for a Nobel? By that measure, the Nobel should go to the American Cancer Society review members who funded Prasher's project to begin with. Serously, the Nobel should go to Prasher.

Carrying out Prasher's instructions!?!?!? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!
What Prasher had was an idea. Chalfie's group made it happen. You don't get Nobel Prizes for having ideas.

10 responses so far

  • ponderingfool says:

    The scientists in Chalfie's lab who physically performed the experiments were a technician and an early-stage graduate student working under Chalfie's direction and mentorship.
    **********
    And this can include setting up a lab environment that encourages people to think & approach questions in a productive manner. I came up with lots of the ideas of my thesis work without directly talking about them with my advisor. The type of questions I asked and how I approached the work though was directly related to how my PI set-up the lab, the type of people he/she brought into the lab, the questions encouraged in group meetings and daily interactions with fellow labmates. There is of course then the grant money the PI brought in that allowed me to do the work, and refining how the work is written-up. Lots of indirect factors that PIs bring to the table that can be missed and are vital (if not more so) to the success grad students and post-docs have in a lab. My advisor on some projects is hands off and let people develop them how they see them. Other times she/he is more hands on. Regardless, the PI has been key to success and deserves credit.

  • drdrA says:

    I don't know any specifics of this particular case- but I agree with you 1000%, ideas are all well and good- but the one who gets the reward is the one who actually made it happen.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    I think the point of the argument is that they both had the same idea and proposal, but Chalfie won the game of grant money bingo, and thus was the person who had the resources to pay the student and techo to do what they both knew had to be done.
    But that isn't the point. The point is why the $%^T#!$^ are we burning out and discarding scientists of Prasher's calibre? And if he really did get knocked back on a potentially Nobel-prize winning proposal, then what is wrong with the NIH funding model?

  • briefly says:

    Agree with PP. What's wrong with giving credit where credit is due?

  • MedChemDoc says:

    I understand everything that PP is saying and to some extent I agree with it. But, I also find it interesting that at least for the US patent office, the person that comes up with the idea gets the patent. In most Universities, a student that generates an idea in a lab can get credit on the patent and can sue if he or she is not placed on the patent. Thus, it is simply not true that someone that comes up with the idea gets nothing. Prasher, I believe is on the patents for GFP because of this.
    So, if he can be an inventor on a patent because he generated the idea, why is he not recognized for a Nobel?

  • msphd says:

    Disagree. I've NEVER seen a PI who should have been first author on a paper, and I've rarely seen a PI who could actually do the work himself.
    In most cases, GETTING IT TO WORK is what deserves an award.
    Even with the supposedly worked out techniques of today, our projects usually take years. It's not so simple as just following a protocol. There's a lot of thinking involved in getting from A to B.
    But your logic makes no sense because you're contradicting yourself. On the one hand, you want to give Chalfie credit for what, having the idea to hand it off to his technician? Intellectual contributions for "directing" a student and technician? But you don't want to give credit to Prasher for having the idea to do it in the first place? For pushing on and asking other people to do the work just because he thought it was important and wanted to know that answer?
    I think Prasher should have been included, but I also think the practice of rewarding PIs and leaving out the grad students and postdocs who made the projects work is royally fucked up and behind the times.
    I also know from many personal experiences that quite often the real ideas come from students and postdocs. Just because the PI says it was his original idea doesn't mean it didn't come from a little birdie.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    I also think the practice of rewarding PIs and leaving out the grad students and postdocs who made the projects work is royally fucked up and behind the times.
    Agree.
    I've NEVER seen a PI who should have been first author on a paper, and I've rarely seen a PI who could actually do the work himself.
    Then you don't get out enough. I know many PIs who meet the most common criteria for first author and sometimes do indeed first-author their papers. Many of my peers do (unfortunately for them) continue to do much of "the work" themselves.
    I find it very unlikely that you are not surrounded by many such PIs unless you are at a very small institute. Although perhaps you have such Glamour blindness that you don't even see the more junior and smaller-lab PIs around you? This could explain much about your views on career....

  • But you don't want to give credit to Prasher for having the idea to do it in the first place?

    No one said anything about not wanting to give credit to Prasher for having the idea. I think it would have been wholly appropriate for Prasher to share the Nobel. The issue being discussed in this post is the narrower hypothetical question whether, between Chalfie and Prasher, Chalfie deserved it more than Prasher.
    Maybe your extreme disdain for PIs blinded you to this very clear sentence in my original post:

    I am not saying that Prasher wouldn't have merited sharing the Nobel were it not limited to three people, but Chalfie clearly deserves it.

  • shafted says:

    I suggested the whole idea to Prasher at a poster presentation in La Jolla in 1962, before any of this shit went down. Where's my fucking Nobel???!!!

  • msphd says:

    BikeMonkey, the young PIs I know frequently start projects. They might do all the pilot experiments.
    And then they hand them off to a student or postdoc WHO THEN SPENDS SEVERAL YEARS REPEATING EVERYTHING AND EXPANDING ON ALL OF IT TO MAKE IT PUBLISHABLE. I think that's perfectly reasonable, but not justification for making yourself first author. And personally, I've never had anyone hand me a project they had even started.
    So no, I said I don't know many PIs who have actually done enough work to merit making themselves first author. That is, in my view of what first authorship involves, which is doing the bulk of the experiments and writing the paper. I find it hard to see how even a junior prof could justify making herself first author on a paper unless she had a labmember who left halfway through the project and she had to finish everything herself? Seems to me that lab members need first-author publications, and PIs need last-author publications, in order for the whole system to work the way it supposedly does. Last author pubs = funding, tenure, etc. am I right? First author = if you're lucky, a fellowship or maybe even your first faculty position.
    Or maybe I'm living in opposite land. I know there are some fields (like chemistry) where the PI is listed as first author, but it's the equivalent of being listed as last author in biology. Is that what you mean? Because I was talking about whether the PI could actually do the experiments and FOLLOW THROUGH ON FINISHING THEM.
    Comrade PhysioProf, I don't agree that the Nobel should be limited to 3 people. But I don't really agree with the concept of Nobels, either. I've seen far too many students who equate scientific success with winning a Nobel prize, and that scares the shit out of me. If this is what the public thinks of science, it's no wonder we always scrambling for funding and jobs.
    shafted- that's hilarious.

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