INSKEEP: This week we'll be announcing the winners of science's highest honor, the Nobel Prize. We reported on the winners of the chemistry prize yesterday and came across the story of another scientist who did not win. This story is a reminder that fate can play strange tricks. NPR's Dan Charles has more.
DAN CHARLES: The Nobel Prize for chemistry went to three scientists who worked with a jellyfish protein that glows green when exposed to ultraviolet light. The scientists figured out how to use that protein to illuminate the inner workings of cells. But to do that back in the 1990s, those scientists first needed the gene that creates the protein. One of the winners, Roger Tsien from the University of California, San Diego, says he was lucky. At just the right time, a researcher named Douglas Prasher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts discovered the gene that Tsien wanted.
Dr. ROGER TSIEN (Nobel Prize Winner; Professor of Pharmacology, University of California, San Diego): So, I found his phone number, called him up, and to my amazement he was willing to give out the gene.
CHARLES: Another of the Nobel laureates, Martin Chalfie, also got the gene from Prasher. So I went looking for Douglas Prasher, hoping for a good quote, and reached him by cell phone on the job in Huntsville, Alabama. Prasher is now driving a courtesy shuttle for a car dealership.
Dr. DOUGLAS PRASHER (Molecular Biologist; Car Dealership Driver): I kind of - I got a hard luck story.
CHARLES: He doesn't have any regrets about giving away the gene. Tsien and Chalfie did great work, he says, and he probably couldn't have done it because the National Institutes of Health had rejected his funding proposals.
Dr. PRASHER: At that time I knew I was going to get out of it. My funding had already run out.
CHARLES: He went to work for a laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, then took a job with a NASA contractor in Huntsville. But two and a half years ago, NASA cut his project, and Prasher lost his job. He tried to find a job in science but failed. So he went to work at the car dealership.
Dr. PRASHER: I never thought I would enjoy working with people this much, because doing science, you know, it's kind of a loner thing. But doing this, you know, I meet new people every day, and I hear all kinds of stories, and some of which I don't need to hear, because I'm kind of like a bartender.
CHARLES: But the job does not pay enough to support his family.
Dr. PRASHER: Yeah, our savings is gone. Yeah, I mean, just totally gone.
CHARLES: Prasher is still looking for a research job. But he worries after two and half years, his knowledge and skills may be out of date. That's not what some of his former colleagues say. One called Prasher's current situation, a staggering waste of talent. In December, Roger Tsien and Martin Chalfie will go to Stockholm and receive almost half a million dollars. Douglas Prasher says if they're ever in Huntsville, they need to take me out to dinner. Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.