The elements that make up Eric Betzig


Eric Betzig shows Team Leader Katherine Du the initial models of his PALM microscope.

Katherine Du, Team Leader

On Nov. 12, tjTODAY interviewed Eric Betzig, Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry.

Q: At TJ, we are required to do a senior lab, such as biotechnology or oceanography. Did you do any labs when you were in high school?

A: Yeah, I did. I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so there is a hospital there and I worked in a lab in [the] hospital. I was working on some biochemistry assay for clinical applications. I really disliked it. It was just very cookie-cutterish; they kind of figured a high school student, lets give them something pretty easy, so I didn’t really feel like I stretched my wings much. It was a little open ended but still there was not much freedom to do much, except of experiments that was not difficult.

Q: What was your favorite subject in high school?

A: I don’t know if I have a favorite subject. I’m kind of a jack-of-all trades, a master of none. I can’t really call myself a scientist or a physicist or a chemist or whatever. I think I’m an engineer at heart. And particularly a systems engineer, where you bring in little pieces of knowledge across different disciplines and try to stir then all together and hook up something new. One of my heroes is a guy named Joe Shea, who is the head of the program office of the Apollo project, and he had to bring together the engineering skills of about 30,000 people scattered all across the country and try to make the command in service modules for the Apollo program. So he had to have all of these details in his head.

Q: Did you have a favorite teacher in high school or college?

A: I’ve had several favorite teachers. In high school, my AP biology teacher. He was extremely difficult, very hard. He had never given an A before so I made it my mission to get an A in his class. And I did, but I turned in 100 page lab reports every week and I would actually skip other classes and pull all-nighters over and over again in order to do the work for his class. In college, my thermodynamics professor was really exceptional. He would do it all just out of his head. He never had notes or anything and he would just re-derive everything. You can tell when you have a teacher who cares, not just about the subject but about the students, and he was one of those. It’s good to have somebody who’s very accomplished but also very caring as a teacher.

Q: Did your college professor inspire you to do physics?

A: Not really, I wanted to do physics, I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid. And then by the time I was in middle school or high school I kind of switched into being an astrophysicist because the shuttle program came along and I wasn’t interested in circling – I wanted to go somewhere. And so I wanted to do physics, but it was again as an undergraduate in summer research that I kind of switched from theory to experiment, realized that I really like building things with my hands. And so then that kind of morphed into more applied physics and that’s kind of what I’ve done ever since is sort of engineering physics and applied physics.

Q: When you were at Cornell did you know what you wanted to do at the time?

A: The day I walked into the door, no. The reason I went to Cornell, I went to CalTech as an undergrad, and the reason I went to Cornell was first off I decided I wanted to do applied physics and at that time there were only two programs in the country that did applied physics. One was Stanford and one was Cornell. Stanford was in California and I hated California so I wanted to come back and Cornell was more like Michigan, so I wanted to do that. And then CalTech had an 8:1 male female ratio and Cornell’s was 50:50, so that was the other reason I wanted to come back. So I had no idea but within the first three months I was there, there was one project, which looked interesting, and all the other ones looked boring and then so that kind of settled the path for the rest of my career. So probably within three months in grad school I’d kind of set up everything else.

Q: Tell me about the research you were doing before winning the Nobel Prize?

A: So my career’s had three stages. The first was the super resolution microscopy that got the Nobel [Prize]. I started working on that in grad school but with a different technique then the one that got me the prize. And I did that first for my Ph.D. thesis and then at Bell Labs, so I did it, you know, in my own lab. So I did that for about twelve years and it had some applications but it had so many limitations that it just kind of topped pretty early. It was frustrating. And so then that’s when I left science and worked for my dad’s company about eight years. And then I jumped back into science, and then we got the idea, me and my buddy Harold got the idea for this PALM microscope that did end up winning the Nobel Prize. And then picked up the old thread, and did the super resolution thing. And then within 6 months we had all of the data that was going to win me the Prize. And then, after a couple of years of that, I got frustrated and bored with that, I thought it was really limiting and then since then here I’ve been doing other microscopes instead.

Q: During your talk at the Nobel Prize I thought it was really interesting how you said you wanted to recognize people that experienced failure, so were there any failures that really helped you shape your career?

A: All my failures shaped my career. You’ll learn a hell of a lot more from a failure then you do from a success. So, you know, pain is the best teacher. Failing with my first microscope taught me that you have to look at the totality of the work that you do and be honest with yourself about the cons as well as the pros. And there’s a lot of scientists who just focus on the pros. But ultimately, the cons will get you if you’re not honest about that from the beginning. And then working for my dad taught me that there’s many people in my line of work who are building new technologies because they can. So they’re making a hammer, then they go out to try to find some nails to hit, applications right. Now, often times they just design the hammer because they could design the hammer, they didn’t think about how many nails there might be that you could hit. And there might be none, you know, useless. So I learned from my dad that the customer always comes first. You have to understand the needs of the customer, for me it’s the other biologists in the building who are the customers, so you have to figure out what they need and then what can I do as an engineer to make something that serves their needs. Cause then I know that if I succeed, there will be plenty of users for what I want. It’s very sad to spend years of your life building something that nobody cares about and wants to use. Yeah I’m always talking to biologists, trying to understand their needs. But also, you have to anticipate their needs because they don’t always know what might be possible. So it’s kind of a fine balance between their needs and what you can perceive would possibly be what they didn’t realize was a need.

Q: How does your research with PALM tie into your current research?

A: PALM was the goal of trying to get to the highest resolution possible, and it pretty much succeeded in that goal. It has a pretty broad application space and of course there’s hundreds of people doing it now. But still it’s pretty limiting because it really optimizes in one direction. Like you know, if you tried to design the fastest formula one racer car in the world to win every race, it will excel at that but it is a crappy car to take six kids off to the soccer field. So PALM excels in one area but it gives up a lot in other areas in order to do that. I guess the overall theme of my career is finding different parts of the larger space of trade offs, different pros and cons to make microscopes optimized for different tasks. It will be like one day I’m going to build a minivan, the next year I’m going to build the formula one racer, and the next time I’m going to design a super fuel-efficient car, and so forth. You can make a multi-mode microscope, but once you go to one mode or the other it’s inherent in that it’s going to give up something when you do the other one.

Q: What are the benefits and disadvantages of winning the Nobel Prize?

A: Benefits are, one is you have more confidence, because I’ve often thought of myself as very insecure at work. And even though I know I’m good it’s still good to know that no matter who you talk to you don’t have to [look up at everyone]. You need some very interesting people, people you wouldn’t meet in other walks of life otherwise, kings, politicians and other things, rock stars. I’m going to go to something next year where I’ll be meeting the guitarist from Queen, things like that. But overall, I wouldn’t give it up. I was thinking about not accepting it when they called because I think awards are toxic, generally to science that the people should be working for the thrill you get from reaching the goal itself, not the subjective thing of somebody else who doesn’t even who what your field is as well as you do, trying to pick winners and losers. It’s not that simple, in any field there’s always a bunch of people who contribute, and the pain from being on the outside of those things is far greater than the pleasure of being on the inside. So I think all this award stuff is really counterproductive, honestly. Having the security that comes with that is a big plus, the negative is having the security that comes with it, because I think you’re always best when you’re a little scared. And a place like Janelia, which has much money as it does, coupled with a Nobel Prize, it’s hard to get scared, right, at this point and you need to be scared. So you have to find other drivers to motivate you to keep going, not to give up. And I’ve seen a lot of Nobel Laureates who just kind of give up, that it’s basically the sign of the end of their career–was their goal all along, and they want to just retire and see the world after that. I’m too young to die, and the negatives are huge. Particularly the travel – the ridiculous amounts of travel, the ridiculous amounts of email, and it’s keeping me away from the lab, it keeps me away from my family, and those are the two things I love. So when I’m away it’s just kind of sad. Again I wouldn’t give it up but at the same time many more people value it much more highly on the outside than I do. There’s this old joke by Groucho Marx that I would never want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member. So that’s kind of the way I feel about the Prize. Kind of devalues it in my eyes that they gave it to me.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

A: There is no free time. Well, I play with my kids when I’m not at work. I always say that guilt rules my life and when I’m at work I feel guilty I’m not with my kids, and when I’m at home with my kids I feel guilty I’m not at my work. I think science is a career only if you – it’s going to get harder and harder over time to have a rewarding career in science because of the money problem. And because, basically, too many scientists have replicated themselves too many times. Every professor wants to create many many copies of himself, and the economy can’t afford to support that many additional professors. So that’s one of the reasons why that gets so hard to get money. So the reason to do science is that it is literally in your blood and you can’t conceive of doing anything else. Even if you weren’t paid, even if you had to wear a ball and chain, you’d still be doing it.