Citations and Speeches


181st Congregation (2009)

Roger TSIEN Yonchien
Doctor of Science

Albert Einstein famously remarked:

'The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed'.

Today we can only pause to wonder and stand in awe at the spectacular scientific achievements of Professor Roger Yonchien Tsien. Roger Tsien stands before us as one of the most prominent and influential scientists of our time.

Professor Tsien tells us in his brief autobiography that he is the 34th generational grandson of King Qian Liu of Wuyue in China. His extended family includes uncles who were engineering professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ('MIT') and his father's cousin Tsien Hsue-sen (Qian Xuesen), who returned to China in the 1950s, becoming the legendary ballistic missile expert who led the research for China's space and defence industry.

His father came from the 'scholar-gentry' class in Hangzhou and studied Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Having returned to China and having married a lovely nurse from Peking Union Medical College, Roger's father returned to America in 1945 where Roger, the couple's third child, was born in 1952. He was named Roger, only finding out later that his older brother had chosen the name because of the famous cowboy actor Roy Rogers!

From early childhood he was fascinated by chemistry experiments (usually performed in the cellar of his family home), especially those that created beautiful colours. Indeed his fascination and involvement in colours is a common theme permeating his eminently successful career.

The family's early experiences of life in America were mixed. Initially they had difficulty buying a house, as the estate agents claimed that selling to a Chinese family would lead to a decline in house prices in their chosen area. Some years later, however, after Roger had won several prizes for his work in chemistry, photographs of him were used by the same estate agents to promote the quality of the district‘s local school system!

Having excelled at school Roger went on to complete his undergraduate studies in Chemistry and Physics at Harvard and subsequently gained his doctorate in physiology in England at Cambridge. Whilst at Cambridge he met his wife-to-be Wendy whom, he proudly says, has always been the love of his life. They returned to the USA, Roger to take up a teaching post at Berkeley, California. There he struggled to set up a laboratory with initially minimal resources. Indeed he stresses that he mentions such austerities only to show that good research can be accomplished even without lavish facilities and start-up funds.

In 1989 he and Wendy moved south to superior facilities at the University of California, San Diego, where he still works. It was here that he gained global fame for his work in macromolecular interactions. To those not versed in chemistry (and I am one such person) his work is indeed mysterious and imbued with an aura of magic. What he has achieved has been to revolutionize the fields of cell biology and neurobiology by allowing scientists to look inside living cells and watch the behaviour of molecules within those cells. This he has made possible by developing colourful dyes and protein tags to track the movement of molecules within the cells in the human body. His inspiration came from jellyfish and corals which glow, creating fluorescent colours. The multicoloured fluorescent proteins that he created have opened up a vast set of pathways and opportunities for studying biological processes at the molecular level and such coloured proteins provide a visual signal for scientists to probe protein activity. This enables the investigator to identify where proteins are produced and monitor how they move within the body. Beginning with the colour green, over the years Roger expanded the colour palette of fluorescent proteins to include blue, yellow, orange and red. He has also developed a technique to monitor the interactions of two proteins, each tagged with different colours of fluorescent proteins. Some of the proteins have mouth-watering names such as mPlum, mStrawberry, mOrange and mCherry, according to the colour with which they glow.

The impact of his work has been immense, giving scientists a window into cells. Indeed, he is now building upon his fluorescent protein work to develop a novel way to image, and possibly even deliver, specially targeted drugs to cancer tumors.

Roger was a co-founder of Aurora Biosciences Corporation, which uses such dyes and coloured proteins for, amongst other purposes, drug screening. He is also a notable biochemical inventor and co-holds more than 60 patents.

His outstanding pioneering work has gained global recognition on a breathtaking scale. He has received numerous awards for his work and is a member of the Institute of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, in the United Kingdom, the Royal Society.

In 2008 Roger was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein.

Roger displays two other characteristics which I hope he will not object to my mentioning. One is a remarkably refined sense of humour. The second is humility. These characteristics are exemplified in comments he made about his own achievements when he says:

'My interest in imaging with multiple glowing colours reflects visual interest from early childhood, which I have been lucky enough to align with a professional career. From a strictly biological point of view our contributions have mainly been in the development of techniques. Man-made techniques do have a habit of becoming obsolete, whereas basic discoveries about how nature works should last forever. But truly fundamental insights, such as those of Darwin or Watson and Crick, are rare and often subject to intense competition, whereas the development of successful techniques to address important problems allows lesser mortals to exert a widespread and beneficial impact for at least a few years'.

I suspect that Roger is vastly understating the significance of his achievements. Roger was born to be great and achieved that greatness in abundance.

Mr Pro-Chancellor, it is my great privilege and honour to present Professor Roger Yonchien Tsien for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Citations written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator.





從錢教授的個人簡傳,我們知道他是中國古時五代十國吳越王錢鏐的第三十四代子孫。錢教授的幾位叔舅都是麻省理工學院的工程學教授。其中堂叔錢學森於1950年代回國發展,帶領中國的航天工業及國防等重要工作,是傳奇人物 ¬─ 中國導彈之父。

錢教授的父親出身於杭州書香世家,曾往麻省理工學院攻讀機械工程。返國後,錢父邂逅了北京協和醫院一名可愛的護士,共諧連理,並於1945年返美,而他們的第三名孩子錢永健,在1952於美國出世,取名Roger;之後才知道他哥哥為他揀選這名字,原因是當時最著名的牛仔演員名叫Roy Rogers。



在中學表現卓越的錢永健,在哈佛完成大學課程,主修化學和物理。之後他在英國劍橋大學考獲生理學博士學位。在劍橋攻讀時,他遇上了Wendy ─ 日後成為了他的太太,他驕傲地說,她永遠是他的至愛。他們一起返回美國,錢氏進入加州大學柏克萊分校任教,他利用極小資源勉強成立一所實驗室;事實上,他之所以強調其簡陋,是希望指出,即使沒有豪華的設施和起動基金,好的研究還是可以幹起來的。











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