UCSD’s big-budget public relations department, charged with playing up good news at the taxpayer-financed school, doesn’t always do as well relaying the solemn aspects of university life and death. Such was the case last month when word broke that Nobel Prize–winning pharmacology professor Roger Tsien, 64, had died in Eugene, Oregon. An obituary on the online UCSD News Center omitted the cause of Tsien’s demise entirely, and the Union-Tribune account said “the precise cause of death has yet to be determined.”
It took the Wall Street Journal until September 9 to unmask the grim details, beginning with the disclosure that Tsien was a cancer victim who had suffered a stroke back in 2013, and had used a “customized recumbent tricycle” after his mobility was reduced. “A fitness enthusiast, Dr. Tsien continued to push himself physically despite the stroke and an earlier battle with prostate cancer, said his widow, Wendy Tsien. ‘He had to keep going,’ she said. ‘That’s who he was.’” According the Journal, Tsien died August 24 while riding his vehicle “along a steep, rocky trail.”
Questions about whether Tsien, who shared 2008’s Nobel for chemistry, was still able to devote time to research at UCSD remain unanswered. According to the university’s payroll database, covering the five years from 2010 through 2015, Tsien was not salaried as a UCSD professor, getting $5000 a year as a part-time lecturer in 2010 and $1000 for the same role in 2013. He was also affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and reportedly spent sabbatical time at the University of Oregon.