When he received his A.B. from Harvard in 1969, Martin Chalfie wasn’t sure what he would do next. His worst grades had been in physics and chemistry, and a summer research project had failed, so science seemed out of reach. He had a series of short-term jobs and then spent two years teaching high school algebra, chemistry and social science in Connecticut.
The need for a summer job after his first year of teaching and the suggestion of a fellow teacher sent him back to biology: a job in a Yale Medical School laboratory. There, the success of a project and the support of colleagues led him back to Harvard for a Ph.D. in physiology. After another suggestion from a friend, he went off to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where he developed his current interests in nerve cell development. He has called his career “a rather undirected and surprising trip.”
Today, Chalfie is a Nobel laureate, having shared the 2008 prize in chemistry. As of this month, he is also one of Columbia’s newest University Professors, an honor that goes to faculty members for exceptional scholarship and service to the University. Only 13 Columbia professors hold the title, the highest academic rank.
His years in a lab, the last 31 at Columbia, have never been boring. “The wonderful aspect is that it’s not an isolated, solitary occupation,” he said. “Often we have no idea where the research is going to go.”
In an interview with The Record, Chalfie discusses why not knowing where your research will go is a good thing.