Q&A with Dr. Eric Betzig, 2014 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

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Q&A with Dr. Eric Betzig, 2014 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Provided by Eric Betzig

Provided by Eric Betzig

Provided by Eric Betzig

by Adrian Chu, Opinion Editor

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Dr. Eric Betzig won the 2014 Nobel prize for Chemistry for his development of super resolved fluorescence microscopy at the Janelia Farm Research Campus.

Winged Post: How would you explain super resolved fluorescence microscopy to a lay person?

Dr. Eric Betzig: Every microscope, anything you use whether it’s your eyes or microscope or telescope to see things, can see things so small or so far away, they usually have a limit based on, in human’s and animal’s cases, the size of the pupils of your eyes. Looking at the samples at that limit, you can basically see down to the half wavelength of light. So what super resolution fluorescence does is it uses a sort of cheat in which by different means of super resolution microscopy you take a bunch of different images that still have the physical limitation of size but each image records only parts of the molecules that are in the sample and then afterwards you can reassemble from all of those partial images a final image actually have a better resolution than any of the single images that you took.

WP: What are the most promising applications of your work?

EB: You know the technique is about 10 years old, so as these things go that’s pretty much a baby. I think it’s true of most technology that you really don’t understand their real impact and significance until almost a generation later.

WP: What is the current focus of the research you are doing now?

EB: The microscope that I won the Nobel for is very powerful in terms of its ability to see on an extremely small scale but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Usually when you try to optimize one direction, you are giving up something else. If you want a super high resolution image, you have to have lots of pixels, and if you have lots of pixels, you have a microscope that has to measure all those pixels that takes a lot of time and furthermore because we are throwing in light. It can do damage and the more light you have to throw then the more pixels the more damage it can do. You are always trading off between how small you can see how fast you can see and how much you can see without harming the cell. And so a lot of my work for the last six or seven years has been about developing other kinds of microscopes that try to optimize those other things. But it’s been limited to look at single cells which is a lot of the biologists do because it is so hard to peer inside the whole organism inside the single cells. So the other area we focus on is developing technology that we have stolen from astronomy called adaptive optics to be able to look through the sort of scattering and working tissue to be able to get a clear picture inside of a cell, inside of a whole organism instead of the more artificial case of single cells.

WP: How did your scientific education in high school and university help you in your research?

EB: When I was a kid, it was all about becoming an astronaut because I grew up during the Apollo era from probably third grade on when I was really focused on science and engineering and physics. I went to CalTech for undergrad and then just had a lot of opportunities to do research over the summer and really get my hands dirty. There’s a huge difference between what you learn in the classroom and what you learn in the lab. I found out that I actually enjoyed building things and making widgets much more than I liked studying and learning quantum mechanics. It is nothing like the excitement of actually building an experiment and getting it to work.

WP: What would you like see change in scientific education?

EB: Much more of an emphasis on the practical. I think the education tends to be very theoretical, and I don’t think you really get a full appreciation or excitement of what science is really about without being involved in the lab. I don’t mean the lab you have in high school or college because those are very cookbook. You are kind of led by the nose through a series of steps. That’s not really what research is about. Having more opportunities for kids in high school particularly in college to do internships and summer studies in labs or even making it part of the course curriculum to have the opportunities to do real research would be important. At graduate school and so forth, there should be a greater emphasis on the science as opposed to the focus on publishing papers or figuring out how you will get a job. I’d like to see the incentives to change a bit more on to focusing on the science.

WP: What would your advice be for high school students looking to pursue research?

EB: Do the things you love to do. For really young people and some kids who do research even up through undergraduate, graduate school or even beyond, some people get into science because they are kind of good at it or they blossomed in that field earlier than some of their peers or they have a lot push from their parents or other people. And they sort of like it but they are not really wedded to, it’s not consuming them. Particularly to make a career out of science in the end, there are easier careers in life if you are not really wedded to it. Whether you would do a career in science or you do a career in anything else, the first thing you should find is something you really love to do because to be good in any field requires a lot of hard work and there are going to be a lot of set-backs and the only way you can pass all of that to the best of your ability is just you really really love it. So anybody who wants to be a scientist shouldn’t necessarily be doing it because of peer pressure, because of hey I am smart so this is what I should do. You do it because you really consume them and really really feel that they need to do it. It’s part of their being.