College of the Pacific Chemistry Professor Jerry Tsai

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Pacific Professor reflects on his work with Nobel Prize-winning Chemist

Chemistry Professor Jerry Tsai was excited to learn that his mentor and longtime friend, Stanford Professor Michael Levitt, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this past week
Oct 14, 2013

Jerry Tsai was about to head out the door for work Wednesday morning when his wife, who was just pulling out of the garage, ran back in the house, yelling out the news that she had heard over the car radio.

That's how Tsai, an associate professor of chemistry at University of the Pacific, learned that his former Ph.D. advisor and longtime friend, Stanford Professor Michael Levitt, was among a trio of scientists awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

"All I remember hearing is, 'Levitt' and 'Nobel Prize', but that was enough for me to put it together," Tsai recalled.

Tsai worked in Levitt's lab at Stanford between 1993 and 1997, after earning his B.S. in microbiology and molecular genetics at UCLA. It was a coveted spot, shared by only three other young scientists at the time. He completed his dissertation, "Proteins and their Environments: a Molecular Dynamics Study," during those years, employing methods that Levitt pioneered - and that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored this week. That dissertation, bound and sitting on a shelf in Tsai's office at Pacific, bears Levitt's signature.

The Nobel committee cited Levitt and fellow prize winners Martin Karplus of the University Strasbourg in France and Harvard University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California for their work developing computational models for the study of complex chemical systems.

As Tsai explains it, the methods gave scientists the ability - for the first time -- to observe how proteins and other small molecules behave and interact.

Tsai stayed on in Levitt's lab as a postdoctoral researcher for a year. From there he moved to the University of Washington as a postdoctoral fellow, continuing to study protein folding and structure. He was an assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Texas A&M University from 2001 to 2008, when he joined University of the Pacific.

Today Tsai continues to work on new computational approaches to challenges in structural biology, from predicting protein structure to defining determinants of protein-protein interactions. His CV lists 50 scientific articles in prestigious peer-reviewed journals that bear his name.

He and his former Ph.D. advisor remain in frequent touch. Tsai visits Levitt in Palo Alto at least once a year, often with some of his Pacific students. The scientists cross paths regularly at scientific meetings in their field as well.

"His work will give us answers to questions people are dying to know the answers to," said Tsai, who noted that when Levitt first began using computers to explore living proteins in the 1970s, his computer had less memory than we have in our digital watches today.

"He's a brilliant mind," he said.

But Tsai said he learned much more than computational modeling from Levitt.

"He taught me how to live a really full life in science," Tsai said. "You can be a slave to science. Science will take you, if you let it."

Levitt set an example by making his wife and three children a priority, balancing academic leadership roles with research, and reveling in everything from Burning Man concerts to hiking.

Tsai reflects on Levitt's work, their relationship and the impact of faculty mentors in this video interview.