Despite earning multiple degrees in physics and all his years doing research, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Eric Betzig sees himself foremost as…a tool builder.
“One of the greatest things about being a tool builder, which I consider myself, is you get to learn things from the best,” said Betzig of the U.S. “The ultimate thing as a tool builder and a scientist, the only metric that matters, is ‘Does my new tool allow me to answer a scientific question that could not have been answered by a previous tool?’”
A new imaging platform
In Betzig’s case, the tool that won him the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry is a microscope that allows cells to be viewed down to the molecular level. A new imaging platform designed at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia, where Betzig is a group leader, produces high-resolution images with little light damage to cells.
Betzig is one of three scientists sharing the chemistry prize “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” according to a press release from the Nobel Prize committee. The two others are Dr. W.E. Moerner, also of the U.S., and Dr. Stefan Hell of Germany. While all three work in the same field of research, all work independent of each other.
Went out for a walk
When Betzig learned he was a Nobel winner, he was in Munich waiting to give a presentation. “I got there absurdly early; the only guy there was the one organizing the conference. I was reviewing my paper and my cell phone rang, I thought I might be on the short list [for the prize], but I didn’t think it would be for chemistry; I thought when the physics prize winners came out, that was it. Then I read the same page over 50 times and went out for walk.”
He called his wife, who is a neuroscientist at Howard Hughes and also working in advanced microscopy, and got a call from his son, who had given the Nobel Committee his cell number. “So he found out before me. Then I talked with the press for the next ten hours.”
His passion, Betzig said, has been trying to develop other microscopes that fill other niches. “Our newest [b1] technology collects high-resolution images rapidly and minimizes damage to cells, meaning it can image the three-dimensional activity of molecules, cells and embryos in fine detail over longer periods than was previously possible,” according to the Howard Hughes web site.
Now scientists can put glowing labels using fluorescence on proteins they want to see in the cells, explained Betzig, similar to the way Starbucks or McDonald’s are highlighted on a Google map.
“I wanted to provide a tool to the molecular biologist and to the cell biologist so they could try to connect these molecules and see how they come together to create something animate,” Betzig said. “All these tools are first and foremost research tools.”
By studying a cell at the molecular level, scientists may be able to learn if a disease comes down to a single cell or copiers that happened during cell division or too many cells that replicate or split and break, he said. “We’re trying to understand from the beginning how bad things get started.”
Besides his work, Betzig’s other passion is being a father to his four children, all of whom were expected to come toin Stockholm for the Nobel Prize ceremony. “My life is ruled by guilt,” Betzig joked. “If I’m with my kids, I think I should be working, and vice versa. It’s like having two jobs.”
Betzig’s interest in his specialty goes back to his graduate school days at Cornell University. “I wanted to do applied physics and when I went to Cornell, I looked around and saw two guys working on an idea to make a super-resolution microscope, and I had the bug bite me big time.”
While at Cornell, Betzig helped to develop a technique known as near-field microscopy, “which brought into focus structures that scientists had long considered too small to see with a light microscope,” according to his biography on the Howard Hughes site. He refined the technology both at Cornell and while working for several years at Bell Labs.
Then he took a job in his father’s machine tool company in his native Michigan, and spent seven years making machine parts, before he felt the tug back to research.
As to what he does for fun, Betzig said his research is his fun and divides his time between working and spending time with his children. While he is excited and appreciative of his award, he was hoping to return to those priorities soon. “My goals are to be with my kids and in the lab,” he said. “I just want to get back to my kids and my lab.”
Name: Eric Betzig
Born: Jan. 13, 1960, Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A.
Family: Married, four children
Position: Group leader at the Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, VA
Career: BS, physics, California Institute of Technology, 1983
PhD, applied & engineering physics, Cornell University, 1985, 1988
Other: William L. McMillan Award
National Academy of Sciences Award for initiatives in research
Photo: Jenny Öhman