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Nobel Prizes and Laureates

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1988
Johann Deisenhofer, Robert Huber, Hartmut Michel

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Interview Transcript

Transcript from an interview with Professor Robert Huber, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 1988, at the 53rd meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 30 June-4 July 2003. Interviewer is freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.

Robert Huber during the interview

Professor Robert Huber, thank you for joining us here in Lindau. Today and during the Lindau Meeting there are many opportunities for young students to meet great scientists. What does it give you?

Robert Huber: I like to interact, to speak with students, and I just like to encourage them to approach me and the other Laureates. We have the forum sitting on the stage. We Laureates are lecturing and I very much hope that the students afterwards come and question us about what we have said and other things. In meeting us I can see the ease for the students, very much so. They do come - 500 this year from all over the world - that's very good.

Is it important for young students and scientific researchers to have role models and do you have a responsibility, do you think, as a Nobel Prize winner?

Robert Huber: I have a responsibility, as an academic teacher I would say, that is not much different from what I do at home at my university or as a visitor to other universities, to speak about my field of science and tell the students that this is interesting, it's worthwhile to pursue, and to convince them that they work in my field. This is what I do here too. Perhaps it's a more mixed, more international audience than what I usually have at home or at some universities I visit. So I like it, I must say.

Were there times when you were a student or back when you were working where there were failures in your work and you maybe felt despair and you had to have a role model? How did you then go about it when there were times which were difficult maybe in your work?

... I had wonderful teachers in physics and in chemistry ...

Robert Huber: You always have that, clearly. And I had excellent teachers. I studied in Munich, chemistry, and I had wonderful teachers in physics and in chemistry, inorganic and organic chemistry, so they were my heroes. The students right now are perhaps a little more to the earth.

Can you remember a specific time when you faced some difficulties and it was just sheer hard work?

Robert Huber: I do remember that. It was when /- - -/ I considered giving up my study of chemistry. There was some practical work in technical chemistry which I didn't like at all and I did not succeed with some of the experiments and had to repeat them and repeat them a second time. I was an excellent student with the best marks and there was a failure. And I felt very miserable concerning myself because it was a failure in a field that I didn't like.

But you went on.

Robert Huber: I went on, fortunately.

Were you happy about that now?

Robert Huber: I'm happy about that and I think others are happy with what came out from my work.

Of course, when you look at your achievements and the way that you have structured the whole spectrum and the way we can see photosynthesis at the moment. I have a question around that which is, when I read the clippings from the time when you were given the award, people said that if there was a possibility of recreating this artificially, one can solve the world's energy problem. Where are we standing at that point?

Robert Huber: No, I never thought that. It's certainly not the case. We learned a lot about biology. We learned about physics as well - the physical principles behind biological reactions. But it had no consequences in technical application. So we learned a lot about the method and instrumentations and techniques that we had to use to solve this problem, which was a crystallographic problem. And these methods are then applied to proteins of very different sources and very different biological function. And there is a very clear applied aspect - all those proteins that play a role in disease processes. And there is, as I see it, the future of pharma research and drug development.

Depending on what side you're standing here, one can see both lots of positives and some people would say negatives as well, as we are getting to know more, and we could therefore interfere.

Robert Huber: There's a discussion about stem cells, about genetic engineering, which is not a problem in the work I am doing. We do use genetic engineering. We make our proteins recombinant in bacteria. Nobody would have ethical concerns when one engineers bacteria - we work with yeast or perhaps even with mammalian cells. All of that is not problematic. So I think that simply does not apply to our work. There is no ethical concern.

One gets the feeling that the more we know the more complex it is. We are getting to know that this is so much more complex than we even thought, so the fear that many people had of genetically modifying and so on might not be possible in the same way as we thought a few years ago.

Robert Huber: There is a clear ethical problem with stem cell research and reproductive cloning in particular of humans. It is becoming clearer and clearer how complex biology is. When I started to work in my field, which was in the middle sixties or so, when the first instruments and methods to do crystallography became available and the first protein structures were determined, the father of my discipline is Max Perutz, who died last year - he worked in Cambridge - and it was amazing to see these first protein structures. He had the idea that they may be symmetrical and simple like the DNA is - the double helix - geometrically rather simple.

... if there is a rule then we apply the rule ...

Proteins are very different. They are enormously complex. You can't predict them. You can't predict their structures. But now at least - this is a most challenging problem by the way - because it is quite clear that there is a rule that determines from the one dimensional sequence of the protein sequence, amino acid sequence, that it's a three dimensional structure. We know that because we can unfold the protein into a linear chain by simply heating it up and then it folds back into the original complex three dimensional structure. So that's obviously the energy minimum. And there is a rule. And one may say if there is a rule then we apply the rule and we can do all we do by serious experimentation with a computer algorithm. If that is so, then I and my discipline would be out of business because we can't do that calculation. So far there is no light in this dark tunnel.

So there are many questions yet to be answered obviously. What would your message be to a young student? What is your opinion? How can one encourage people to go into this field?

Robert Huber: The young people certainly want challenges. They would like to work in the forefront of science and we, the Laureates, try to convince them that work in biology is in fact in the forefront and it produces, even with simple experiments, often unexpected results opening new avenues for research. So to bring that forward there is so much to be discovered, in particular in biology, where we just have scratched the surface of an understanding of the biological phenomena. And on the other hand there are the methods available, an enormous development in methods that we have now available to study biological phenomena. So I would encourage them to study biology and work in biology. There's so much to be discovered.

Would you like to get the general public and companies and others to support the scientific world and the young students in a different way?

Robert Huber: It very much depends also on the media, you see, to bring forward that message that science is fascinating, it is rewarding. It is necessary for countries like ours, like Sweden and Germany - there are no natural resources except our brains - for these nations. So to bring that forward also the media can help.

Professor, one last question: what is your greatest memory from your time as a scientist?

Robert Huber: I can tell you what was very important for me as a student who had just finished his first exams and started to work on a scientific problem - which looking back right now was a very minor problem, but at that time it was important - it was a small molecule a Nobel Laureate was working on and a famous professor associated with him. I joined them as a diploma student, aged 22 or so. And I did a simple experiment and found that they were wrong, they made an error, an essential error, suggesting the molecular shape of this molecule incorrectly. And I could correct them, you see. This was great - I, a nothing. All of this was then very friendly and they liked what I had done. But, for me, it convinced me that I could achieve something and it was very decisive for me to stay in science.

Professor Huber, thank you very much and it was very nice to meet you. Thank you.

 

See a Video of the Interview
14 min.

 

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