Professor Roger Tsien, 1 February 1952 – 24 August 2016

1st September 2016

The College is saddened to learn of the death of alumnus, Honorary Fellow and Nobel Laureate, Professor Roger Tsien (G74).

Roger Tsien was a graduate student at Churchill College from 1974–77 as a Marshall Scholar, receiving a PhD in Physiology for research on The Design and Use of Organic Chemical Tools in Cellular Physiology,  under the supervision of Churchill Fellow, Lord Richard Adrian in the and assisted by Andy Holmes, Gerry Smith Jeremy Sanders (G69)in the Department of Chemistry.

Speaking about Tsien's PhD research, Professor Sanders said:

"...his determination in the face of practical difficulty and skepticism in Physiology were inspirational. Roger's original molecule, and its descendants, have transformed our understanding of the role of metal ions in cell biology. His three key Cambridge papers have been cited a total of over 5000 times, while his 1985 paper describing the second generation of calcium dyes, has been cited over 20,000 times."

Following his PhD, Tsien continued working in Cambridge as the Comyns Berkeley Unofficial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. In 1982 he joined the University of California, Berkley as a junior professor and in 1989 became Professor of Pharmacology, Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego.  

Professor Tsien revolutionised the fields of cell biology and neurobiology with his work on the discovery and development of green fluorescent proteins (GFPs), for which he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Osamu Shimomura and Martin Chalfie in 2008.

Combining his skills in chemistry and biology, Tsien found ways to make GFP glow more brightly and consistently, creating a full palette of fluorescent proteins that can be used to track where and when certain genes are expressed in cells or in whole organisms.

GFPs have become a fundamental fixture in life sciences labs around the world, allowing researchers to watch molecules interact in real-time and has rapidly increased our knowledge of cellular function. 

He also developed fluorescent indicators of calcium ions and other ions important in biological processes.

In recent years Professor Tsien focused on medical applications of his research — contributing to developments in cancer research and treatment. Professor Tsien worked with colleagues to design U-shaped peptides, which are 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.

Speaking about Professor Tsien, Pradeep Khosla — Chancellor of the University of California , San Diego said:

“As much as we honour 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.”

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 Tsien was elected as an Honorary Fellow at Churchill College in 2009

Read the UC San Diego press release

Read the Washington Post obiturary