The Unexpected Nobel
Eric Betzig is a research leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. Last month he received a surprising and life changing call: he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on high resolution microscopy (see the video above).
Everyone who wins the Nobel is impressive, but what makes Betzig particularly worthy of attention is his unlikely path to the prize. One thing that any non-partial observer will confirm is that if you had met Betzig in 1994, the idea that he would one day win the most prestigious award in science would seem strictly absurd.
As scientists go, Betzig had a strong start. As he recounts in a Washington Post profile, as a child Betzig was captivated by the space race. “I can still you the names of the astronauts on every flight from Mercury to Apollo,” he said.
This motivated him to study physics at Cal Tech. After he graduated in 1983, he went on to earn his PhD in applied physics at Cornell.
At this point, the excitement surrounding the space program had waned, so Betzig ended up studying high resolution microscopy for his dissertation — a field that was becoming hot as new technology enabled breakthroughs in the resolution of microscopes.
In 1988, Betzig moved to Bell Labs to continue his work on microscopes. At Bell Labs, Betzig helped improve a pioneering procedure for detecting the light absorption of single molecules to work at room temperature (the original experiments had required temperatures near absolute zero).
At some point, however, Betzig began to feel “restless.” Technology wasn’t ready to capitalize on the techniques he was helping to develop.
“Science goes through fads and there are big ups and crashes,” Betzig recalled in the Post profile. “[The] microscopy we were using was going through one of those fad phases, which disturbed me. It was being grossly oversold.”
In 1994 he quit Bell Labs to join his father’s Michigan-based tool and die company, where he would remain for the next seven years.
In the early 2000’s, Betzig was someone who had been involved in promising research a decade earlier, but not anything that was Nobel-worthy. He had subsequently spent the last seven years helping his dad’s company optimize procedures for large-scale production of machine parts.
Nothing about this his resume predicted what would happen next.
Betzig decided that he “missed the basic curiosity of the lab.” He wanted to return to academia, but he also knew that his seven years working in industry and not publishing made that almost impossible.
The keyword being “almost.”
Betzig concluded that his only way back into the world of academic science was to hit a home run. So he began searching for a good pitch to swing at.
This search, at one point, led him and Harald Hess, an old Bell Labs collaborator, to Mike Davidson’s lab at Florida State where he learned about a new technique for fluorescing proteins. Though the details of the explanation are complicated, this breakthrough, Betzig noticed, made it theoretically possible to advance the research he had started in the 1980’s.
Working in Harald Hess’s living room, the pair began making phone calls and begging for some fluorescing proteins. They then started cobbling together different prototypes of microscopes that would use these proteins to achieve unprecedented resolution.
Their final result was attention-grabbing in the field: a microscope able to visualize the biological processes of living cells, in real time, without damaging the organisms. A major breakthrough.
The year was 2006. Within a month, Howard Hughes Medical center offered Betzig a research position to continue the work. In 2014, this work won him the Nobel.
Soon after Betzig won the prize, several readers sent me versions of his story. When I read it, I was struck by the following observation: When Eric Betzig wanted to return to academia, he asked, “what would this take?” The answer was daunting — a breakthrough too good to be ignored — but nonetheless he hustled to make it happen.
This strategy sounds obvious, but it differs from how most of us approach professional advancement. When faced with an ambitious goal, most people defer instead to the question”what do I know I how to do and how can I make it look better?”
We take what we can do, in other words, instead of facing the reality of what it would take to get where we want to go.
I don’t exempt myself from this vice, and for this reason it fascinates me. Why is it so rare to honestly confront what would guarantee success with a goal ? Why do we instead default to tweaks and polishes on what we already know how to do? Why, for example, don’t more academics obsessively pursue the type of home run swings that Betzig identified as being necessary when he decided to return to the world of science?
There are some obvious answers to these questions, chief among them being discomfort with the answers that such honesty reveals, and there are some mysteries as well.
But what’s clear is that these questions remain something that I think anyone seeking an elite level of accomplishment must, at some point, confront. I also suspect that one of the main filters between those who end up changing the world and those who don’t is how they answer this unavoidable prompt.