For William E. Moerner, research is not something done in isolation; it also is a valuable teaching tool.
“Teaching young people to do research—that is a huge fraction of my time,” said Moerner, the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University in California. “It’s definitely exciting to explain scientific concepts to young students and help them learn it.”
Moerner, who teaches undergraduate and graduate students, had a new lesson for his students when he returned from a trip to Stockholm in December: what happens when you win the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
“I was in Brazil at a conference when I heard from my wife; I was extremely excited,” he said about receiving the news. “I had this feeling of could this really be true and this is going to really change your life, which it already has. Of course, it’s a dream, a lifetime’s dream.”
The age of great industrial research labs
One of three winners of the chemistry prize, Moerner joins fellow American Dr. Eric Betzig and German Dr. Stefan Hell. All were honored “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” according to a press release from the Nobel Prize committee. The three work independent of each other, but are familiar with each other’s research. (Betzig at one point interviewed for a post-doctorate position in Moerner’s lab.)
The research for which Moerner was recognized actually was done in 1989, while he was working for IBM Research in San Jose, CA. He is credited with the first optical detection and spectroscopy of a single molecule in condensed phases, along with his post-doctoral researcher, Lothar Kador.
“At IBM, we were working on optical storage and using molecules to store bits of information using spectroscopy,” Moerner said. Out of doing the fundamental work for that project he realized it was possible to observe a single molecule in a solid.
Moerner visited his old lab at IBM after the Nobel Prize was announced, and said people there were eager to throw a party.
In those days, Moerner said, IBM and some other big companies were able to fund basic science research as well as technology projects. “It was the age of the great industrial research labs; there was a lot of freedom to explore fundamental science as well as applications.”
A physical chemist
But over time, IBM’s priorities shifted, and Moerner wanted the freedom to engage in pure research, broaden his research to include biology, work with young students and teach. “My research did not have further applications at IBM, and I wanted to pursue single molecules at room temperature.”
He was offered a faculty position at the University of California—San Diego in the department of chemistry and biochemistry. “By this time, I had worked my way into becoming a physical chemist,” Moerner said. In 1998, he made the move to Stanford.
I loved science
His current work involves the biophysics and imaging of single molecules. Moerner said his own scientific orientation started early. “I was one of those kids who loved science.” His father was trained in chemistry, physics and electronics, and Moerner read books on elements of radio, built electronic devices, and did a few chemistry experiments in the back yard shed. “I loved to fix things and build things.” His mother was an English teacher who helped him become interested in achievement and science.
He still is involved with amateur radio; Moerner and his wife have participated in emergency communications activities, where ham radios are very important. Now Moerner is interested in more technical aspects, like trying to detect signals bounced off moon. He and his wife also enjoy singing with choral groups, such as the Stanford Symphonic Chorus.
Support basic work
In keeping with his interest in teaching, Moerner also is eager to spread the word about the importance of science education and has spoken to high school students in the U.S. about the need for more people trained in the sciences. “We have a problem; there are not enough young people interested in math and science in general,” Moerner said. “We live in a very technical world, people accept the new technology, but we need the public to understand the importance of science and to support basic work in order to develop new technology to move forward.”
Just as he and his fellow Nobel Prize winners all are continuously developing methods to make the new technology work better for all sorts of imaging problems. “Our goal is to do the very best science we can do.”
Name: William E. Moerner
Born: June 24, 1953,
Family: Married, one son
Position: Harry S. Mosher Professor in Chemistry and Professor, by courtesy, of Applied Physics at Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Career: B.S. electrical engineering, B.S. physics, A.B. mathematics, Washington University, 1975
M.S. Physics 1978
PhD Physics 1982, Cornell University
Photo: Jenny Öhman