I entered Chuck Kimmel’s lab at the University of Oregon in the summer of ’79 — 38 years ago (I know, time flies when you’re living your life). It was a rather miserable summer, because I was trying to do physiological recordings of Mauthner cell activity, and nothing worked. Stupid fish. They were so inconsistent and annoying. I’d thump them in the ear one time and get a lovely extracellular spike, and then I’d spend days whacking them some more and they’d just lie there, as inert as the gelatin they were imbedded in, near as I could tell.
But I lucked out, because Chuck was a sympathetic and usually patient advisor, and I got through that summer and onto projects that actually did work. And now he’s won a Major Award.
Chuck Kimmel, a UO professor emeritus in the Department of Biology and the Institute of Neuroscience, recently was honored for his contributions to the field with the International Zebrafish Society’s first-ever George Streisinger Award.
Streisinger, the late UO biologist, is widely considered the founding father of zebrafish research. Kimmel helped establish the foundation of modern zebrafish research.
“Without Chuck working very hard to promote the field, the whole enterprise could have just dwindled,” said Judith Eisen, a UO professor in the Department of Biology and the Institute of Neuroscience whose lab uses zebrafish to study neuron diversity during development. “It’s fair to say Chuck was absolutely instrumental in bringing us from where we were, with just a few labs at the UO, to where we are today, with well over 1,000 labs worldwide.”
He’s the right person to win the first George Streisinger Award. To drop names again, I also knew George fairly well.
“To get an award named for George is a special privilege,” Kimmel said. “George and I go way back and I feel very honored.”
Zebrafish research is now thoroughly ingrained in the culture at the UO, where about 100 researchers in 11 labs use zebrafish to study medical issues and answer fundamental questions about development. But that wasn’t always the case.
Kimmel said he was not thinking about zebrafish research when Streisinger recruited him to come to the UO in 1969. At the time, he was more interested in questions about biological specificity and was drawn to the UO by the Institute of Molecular Biology, one of the first interdisciplinary university research centers.
But by the late 1970s, Kimmel was working closely with Streisinger on several collaborative research projects involving zebrafish. Kimmel zeroed in on developing neurons in the zebrafish brain and embarked on a decade-long research quest to illuminate the developmental steps that led to different tissue types in the zebrafish embryo.
In 1984, Streisinger died while scuba diving. Kimmel and others who worked alongside Streisinger — including UO biologist Monte Westerfield and Streisinger’s assistant, Charline Walker — did their best to pick up where Streisinger left off and fill the void left by his sudden passing.
“George was a wizard of a person,” Kimmel said. “He was perfectly honest, perfectly brilliant, perfectly sharing. He just had a lot of positive attributes, which we all tried to emulate.”
Everyone who knew George loved the guy — he was passionate and enthusiastic about everything. Now I’m realizing that everyone involved in zebrafish is a good person. It must be something about the soothing bubbling of the tanks and the gentle, hypnotic schooling of the fish. It just fills you with calm and love of humanity.
Also in that news announcement, a fellow I do not know, Adam Miller, has won the Chi-Bin Chien award. I will go out on a limb and predict that he is also a nice guy, since he’s a zebrafish person. I did know Chi-Bin Chien, who I mainly remember as always laughing and helpful.
You are now thinking “hey, aren’t you, PZ Myers, also a zebrafish guy?” And yes, that is true, but I’m the exception that proves the rule. Everyone else is wonderful, I’m just here to provide a little contrast.