Published 20 June 2013 by Kathleen Raven

Behind the greatest experiments: basic research

Insight must precede application.  — Max Planck, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1918

Max Planck statue outside the main entrance of Humboldt University in Berlin
Photo by Kathleen Raven

One summer day a young Martin Chalfie walked out of a lab after a particularly frustrating experiment. He thought—quite erroneously—that the life of a scientist was not for him. After teaching high school chemistry for some years, he gave one more try. Working with Robert Perlman, then in Harvard University’s physiology department,  Chalfie rekindled his passion for chemistry.    Basic science benefitted immensely from the work Chalfie and his colleagues accomplished many years later. They won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for showing how the gene that causes green fluorescent protein (GFP) to glow could be used in C. elegans to highlight individual cells without the need for added enzymes to create the light. This discovery was necessary for his further research into the function of nerve cells that create our feeling of touch, balance and hearing.

On Wednesday, 3 July during the Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings, Chalfie will discuss how tickling C. elegans worms with an eyelash hair led to further insight. With all of these connections to basic research, I’ve been thinking often about Max Planck who was allegedly told that “there was nothing new to be discovered in physics.” The famous German scientist pursued his interests anyway. And we still experience his discovery through “Planck’s constant,” which is mentioned in the description of Nobel Laureate David Wineland’s talk  scheduled for 1 July called “Superposition, Entanglement, and Raising Schrödinger’s Cat.”

In the United States, basic research – the unglamorous stepchild in grant funding circles – is often pushed aside. The slower progress found in this line of work, coupled with larger risks of dead-ends, may make it seem tedious. Translational science projects usually start full-steam ahead with the promise of bedside solutions. As we listen to and talk with each in the coming weeks, I think all conversations would benefit by highlighting the basic research that exists—as well as the knowledge we have yet to gain—in all great chemistry experiments.

“Scientific inquiry starts with observation,” said Chalfie in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2008. “The more we can see, the more we can investigate.”



Kathleen Raven

Kathleen Raven reports on cutting-edge solid tumor cancer drug developments and clinical trials for BioPharm Insight, owned by The Financial Times Group, in New York City. She’s previously written for Reuters Health, Scientific American, MATTER, Nature Medicine and other U.S. publications. She has been a recipient of the following short-term reporting fellowships: National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, Goethe Institute, Fulbright Berlin Capital and Falling Walls. She has two master’s degrees from the University of Georgia in Ecology and Health & Medical Journalism.