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Looking for inspiration in your career or for the new year?

By Shawn Lewenza January 4, 2016 - 1:09pm

I just watched the amazing and inspiring video of the Nobel prize acceptance speech of Eric Betzig, who won the Nobel prize in Chemistry for 2014.

From the start of the video, I recognized the brilliant but awkward presentation style that goes along with many academic researchers. They do not fit the TED talk model is one way to put it. I was familiar with the new microscopy method called PALM, that he helped developed and was the reason he was awarded the Nobel prize. PALM is  a superresolution technique that allows the light microscope to view biological structures in cells with the highest resolution possible, with the goal to resolve a sample with as great detail as seen in an electron microscope. The method is powerful and continues to break new frontiers of peering into a living cell. The talk is heavy on the science but interspersed with his own individual challenges in life, which was the most interesting from my perspective.

For example, his own self-described, mid-life crisis began when he quit his industrial research job claiming that he "hated science". He then worked for his father in engineering for 4 years, built a sophisticated piece of equipment but only sold 2 of them and decided to quit that job too. Now he felt a failure as both a  scientist and business man.  At this point, he was 42, had a family with 2 kids, and was an unemployed physicist. He reconnected with an old friend and they began to meet up regularly, usually on trips in the outdoors, to discuss the meaning of life and how to find their way back to make a contribution.

After being away for science for 10 years, the two friends found themselves both unemployed, but itching to get back in the game. He caught up on the literture and realized that the missing piece of technology needed to test his biggest idea off the ground was now available. Scientists had now developed the GFP protein, the green fluorescent protein from the jellyfish. GFP could be expresssed in any cell, and could be fused to any protein in any cell. This allowed a fluorescent microscope to now visualize green GFP-tagged regions of a cell, all else was dark. Inspired by this potential to combine GFP with their earlier imaging techniques, they dug out their old equipment from a storage locker and assembled a microscope in the living room of one of the men. He was not married and so this was not an obstacle. They worked day on night on testing their ideas. and eventually were invited to setup  their new system in a lab and to collaborate with biologists who could help this physicist create the next innovation in microscopy.

After only 6 months of experiments, they generated the data to produce a Science paper, that ultimately led to the Nobel prize. He went literally from rags to riches, as mulitiple collaborations led to new successful companies, and another academic position in a presitigious centre. The Nobel was bittersweet, as it was not shared with his long term friend and collaborator. I need to look more into this part of the story, as there is always juicy dirt on who gets awared the Nobel, and who ges excluded. For any 'discovery' there is often a complex trail of scientists who made partial contributions to the ultimate finding. 

He dedicated his acceptance speech to all those who took huge gambles in life, giving up power, presitige, money, making all kinds of personal sacrifices, but who ultimately failed to make their dream a reality. He reminded us that the fearlessness to take risks, and the journey to attempt to make the world a better place, was the real measure of a life well-lived. 

I strongly encourage you to watch his Nobel lecture. Great watching for the first Monday back to work and the start of a new year. 



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