Marc Zimmer is the author of TFCB’s amazing Bioluminescence book, new in Fall 2015. In its starred review, Booklist comments that, “There’s a good deal to admire in this intriguing book. Bioluminescence evokes a sense of wonder in anyone who has caught a lightning bug or seen a greenish glow in ocean waves at night, yet little information on the topic is available for young people.” I recently had a conversation with Marc about his work as a scientist (chemist), the influences in his life, and what he likes to read. Here’s an excerpt from our talk.
1. How did you end up specializing in fluorescent proteins? I grew up in South Africa wanting to be a game warden who looked after wildlife (dung beetles, honey badgers, hyenas, and the like) and their environment. When those plans got derailed and I became a computational chemist, I chose research subjects that were of interest to me. One day I heard a talk by Professor Douglas Prasher about fluorescent proteins and how he got the idea of using them in imaging. I was immediately interested. At the time, this was a very new area of research. It involved jellyfish and bright colors and was very useful as a research tool, so how could I resist? I now calculate the structures of light-producing proteins from jellyfish, eels, corals, and fireflies and try and relate the structures of these proteins to the colors of light they produce. Ironically I am colorblind.
2. What is exciting about science from your point of view? How can I not be excited by science when: —The typical human body has 10 to the fifteenth cells. Each cell, if we were to unravel the DNA contains about 6 feet of DNA. Take all the DNA from all the cells in your body and stretch them out. The resulting DNA string will go to the sun and back at least 40 times. —When attacked by a lion, a honey badger can detach its body from its skin and twist around, breaking all the connections to its fur before biting the lion where it is most vulnerable. —We can use light to activate certain neurons in a mouse so that it forgets or remembers certain skills.
3. Did you have any particular mentors or role models who helped you in your academic and/or professional life? My main mentor was professor emeritus Gene Gallagher in the department of religious studies at Connecticut College, where I teach. We read similar books, listen to similar music. He is ten years older than I and helped me balance teaching, writing, and research.
4. For teens who are interested in pursuing science in any way, what tips would you offer them for pursuing their scientific interests? Read, explore, build, and tinker. I am a strong believer in reading, computer coding, and playing strategic board games (Lost Cities and Heckmeck and Bratwurmeck are my current favorites). I think this trains young scientists to think, persevere, and strategize like a scientist.
5. What are some of your favorite books that you have read or are reading for pleasure? Unless I have too much work, I like to read at least a book a week. They are mostly thrillers set in exotic locals. Deon Meyer and Roger Smith are my favorite South African authors in this genre. I also enjoy reading popular science books. Titles such as Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, David Quammen’s Spillover, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are some of my all-time favorites. I also have the Twitter bug, and I spend a lot of time on Twitter, which is how I keep up with the newest trends in science. You can follow my (largely) science-related tweets @LightUpScience.