George Mason University

News at Mason

Nobel Laureate Visits Mason

March 27, 2015

By Michele McDonald

Eric Betzig, awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, meets with students and faculty of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Eric Betzig, awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, meets with students and faculty of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Nobel laureate Eric Betzig’s zigzag career path helped give some George Mason University students a clearer focus on their future when he visited the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study this week.

Betzig’s work revolutionized high-resolution microscopes, culminating in a 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His work makes it possible to see living cells in action with astonishing clarity.

Krasnow researchers use powerful microscopes in their search to discover how the mind works––Betzig’s microscopes will help scientists move closer to that goal, says Mason neuroscientist Giorgio Ascoli, a University Professor at Krasnow, who invited Betzig to tour the institute and discuss his work.

Betzig trained as a physicist, made his name in microscopes and won the Nobel for chemistry. Why he won for chemistry is a question for the Nobel committee, he says.

“Scientists are natural philosophers,” Betzig says. “The best scientists these days don’t think in terms of boundaries.”

It’s Betzig’s story of moving from academia to industry and back to academia again that clicks with many students. While unemployed after a failed venture, he built the innovative microscope in the living room of his best friend, Harald Hess, a group leader at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus.

Betzig was employed by Bell Labs but left in the mid-’90s. His backup plan was to work for his father’s machine tool company in his native Michigan. After years of work, he sold only two of the machines he developed. His career had gone off track, and he had blown through his backup plan.

“That was the blackest time of my life,” Betzig told the group of about 100 who attended the talk sponsored by Mason’s Neuroscience Graduate Student Organization. “I’m 42 years old. I’m unemployed and probably unemployable.”

But Betzig says he did something smart­––he reached out to his former colleague and good friend, Hess. He realized he missed science and had time to think about how to boost the resolution of microscopes.

And working with a colleague is better than working alone, says Betzig, adding he “didn’t have the guts” to do the high-resolution microscope project on his own. “With [Harald], I knew we could not fail,” he says.

The former Bell Labs colleagues returned to academia and now are based at the Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Va.

Betzig’s story piques the interest of Susheela Meyyappan, a bioengineering doctoral student who earned an undergraduate bioengineering degree from Mason last year.

“I never considered both industry and academia an option,” she says.

Rob Cressman (l) speaks about his research with Eric Betzig, awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, as he tours Cressman's lab at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study with neuroscience PhD student Monica Gertz (R) at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Rob Cressman (l) speaks about his research with Eric Betzig, awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, as he tours Cressman’s lab at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study with neuroscience PhD student Monica Gertz (R) at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

“Students are at a crossroads,” says Betzig about why his path is so appealing to students. “It’s useful for them to know they don’t have to go but one way. There can be a way back.”

Monica Gertz, a doctoral student in neuroscience, spent a decade in business before earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry in 2006 from George Mason. The National Science Foundation fellow is thinking about pursuing a job in industry after she graduates.

“For me, it’s really not the details of what he did but the philosophy and mentality of where he got to where he is now,” Gertz says.

“I’ve been on the fence about whether to go into research, teaching or industry,” says Christopher Rees, a bioinformatics doctoral student. “It’s good to know that you’re not committed to one early on.”

And taking the time to think also resonated with students, who are working to complete their degrees while pondering their next venture.

“After meeting Dr. Betzig, I realized I can think about a problem strategically and take the time to step back,” Gertz says.