Making Molecules (And Salamanders) Glow
Green fluorescent protein lights up an axolotl under blue light.
Credit: Justin Rosenberg, Connecticut College
Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

Name: Marc Zimmer
Age: 48
Institution: Connecticut College
Field of Study: Chemistry, specifically the understanding of fluorescent proteins

When Marc Zimmer headed to college, he wanted to become a game warden. Exploring new frontiers while protecting big game, he thought, would satisfy his need for adventure. But on his way to fulfilling that dream, the South African native discovered chemistry — a vast world with molecules as beautiful as anything roaming a savannah. Today, he studies molecules that light up organisms in a rainbow of colors. He's most fascinated with green fluorescent protein (GFP), a molecule originally found in jellyfish that now helps scientists watch cellular events unfold inside living organisms and even engineer bacteria to detect bioterrorism agents. Zimmer, a biochemist at Connecticut College, is trying to figure out how to make fluorescent proteins glow even brighter. A key step in the process: getting students excited about chemistry, work for which he has received an NSF grant. One look at his axolotls (a type of salamander) that glow lime green under blue light could convince anyone that chemistry is cool. Zimmer answers ScienceLives' 10 questions below and many others in a feature article in the Sept. 2009 issue of Findings magazine, where he can answer your questions.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
The chemicals' use in medical and biological imaging, as well as their brilliant colors.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

Don't insult a crocodile before you have crossed the river. There are many rivers I want to cross in my life so that means …

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?
Like most South African kids, I bred silk worms. I still remember the excitement of getting them to spin their silk into specific shapes and controlling the color of the silk by changing their diet.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

I get to work with many young people and hopefully make a difference in their lives. There is always something new and unexpected (good and bad).

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be effective?
Be nosy and inquisitive about life, molecules and everything around you. Persevere, but know when to give up.

What are the societal benefits of your research?
Besides instilling a love and knowledge of chemistry in my students, I hope that our research results will be used to generate new brighter multicolored fluorescent probes.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?
My students, my research advisors and my colleagues — even those that teach "Cults and Conversions."

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most?
How many projects end up in the landfill of ideas, where they join my inconclusive results, incorrect hypotheses and dark, dreary non-fluorescent proteins.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?
My GFP axolotls (see photographs).

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?
My iTunes library has over 5,000 songs. Some favorites are South African kwaito (e.g. Zola and Tkzee), reggae, ska and Bollywood soundtracks.