Nobel Prizes and Laureates

Nobel Prizes and Laureates

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014
Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, William E. Moerner

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William E. Moerner - Biographical

William E. Moerner


I was born on June 24, 1953 at Parks Air Force Base in Pleasanton, California, a city in the eastern region of the San Francisco Bay Area. Although this qualifies me as a California native, after only six weeks, my parents took me back to their home in San Antonio, Texas. From birth, my parents referred to me by my initials ("W. E.") because my father and grandfather both had William as their first name, and my parents did not want me to be burdened with various diminutive nicknames such as "Little Billy," "Billy Jr.," etc. In their memory, I have continued to use initials for situations where a formal name is not required. Although initials are not uncommon in Texas, almost everywhere else in the world I have had to explain the use of initials, and most quickly adjust to this relatively strange nickname. As Johnny Cash stated in his classic song, "A Boy Named Sue," it could have been worse: my parents could have named me "Sue."

My mother, Bertha Frances Robinson Moerner, was born as an only child on August 23, 1924 in Winnsboro, Texas, to Elbert Esco Robinson and Callie Nannie Jane Harrison. Because my grandmother was one of the many Harrison siblings, half siblings, and step siblings, much of my early childhood years were spent with a variety of great aunts, great uncles, and numerous first and second cousins. Callie was a talented seamstress and a great cook, and often after school she took care of me and a couple of other cousins. My grandfather worked in a cottonseed mill in Winnsboro before the family moved to San Antonio in the mid-1940s. I remember him most as a hard-working carpenter who could build almost anything out of wood, and I owe part of my skill in building things to him.

My father, William Alfred Moerner, was born on July 21, 1922 in San Antonio, Texas, to William Emil Moerner and Florence Nightingale Lehmberg. My grandmother and grandfather spoke German as well as English, and she provided a loving home and great meals for my father and his brother and sister. Florence had a fine voice for singing, and my years singing with her and my father in the Woodlawn Methodist Church choir laid the foundation for my love of music to this day. My grandfather, a veteran of World War I, spent most of his career at the San Antonio City Public Service Board working up from ditch digger to office clerk and storekeeper, and in retirement he became an avid beekeeper. He was born in the Texas Hill Country, the son of Robert Hermann Moerner and Emma Hoting Moerner. My great-grandfather Robert was a well-known Methodist minister in Art, Texas, and he was the first Mörner (anglicized to Moerner) to emigrate to the United States from Schlanow in the Province of Brandenburg, Germany, in March 1885. Robert's parents, Karl Ludwig Mörner and Augusta Wilelmina Gurkasky, were also from the Brandenburg area. Little is known about their ancestors, and any specific connection to the long line of Mörners in Germany and in Sweden is still waiting to be elucidated.

My parents (Fig. 1) fell in love during the years of World War II, something which greatly punctuated and influenced their lives and education. My mother studied English at the University of San Antonio and the University of Texas, and finished her studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. She subsequently spent many years as an English teacher at Fox Technical High School. My father went to college at Trinity University to study physics and mathematics, and I remember him telling me stories about launching rockets with the chemistry professor. His studies were interrupted by terms of service in the Air Force where he was trained as a bombardier and a navigator, but he did not see direct conflict. Mostly he and my mother traveled around to live at various military training locations such as Biloxi, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama. They married on September 8, 1945, which makes me a member of the baby boomer generation. My father enlisted again during the Korean conflict, and this time additional training in electronics earned him an important but high stress position working on Special Weapons in New Mexico and Arizona. Unfortunately, he contracted scarlet fever and donated two units of blood at once, which led to medical problems that ended up being treated at Parks AFB in California; this explains why my parents were there in 1953 when I was born. After our return to San Antonio, my father joined the U.S. Civil Service at Kelly Air Force Base, where he was a professional/scientific photographer for many years. I clearly remember the photo lab there, which combined the optics of the cameras and enlargers with the vats of chemicals required to process silver halide emulsions into large photographs.

My parents, William A. and Frances R. Moerner.

Early Childhood and Public School Education

I remember little from my earliest years, other than happy birthdays with all the cousins and some fun camping trips to the Texas Gulf Coast with my parents and the family of my cousin Randy Seaman. Randy's mother, Emmy Lee Givens Seaman, was a first cousin to my mother and they were like sisters. My parents doted on me at every turn and taught me so much about the value of education and hard work - contributions to my development that were priceless. I profited from beginning school just after the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the subsequent increase in public support for studying math and science.

I attended public schools in San Antonio for my education, beginning with Madison Elementary for the first grade in 1959. I do remember playing on the winning baseball team that year, even though I was not a stellar player. More importantly, my future interest in electronics began at this time when my parents gave me a diode or transistor radio kit in the first grade. Since my parents moved to the northwest side of San Antonio that year, the rest of the elementary years occurred at Maverick Elementary. It was an important realization made during the third grade that I was very near-sighted, and when I got glasses, a new world was opened to me. I remember the "New Math" in the fourth grade, which was based on worksheets with empty cells and it was necessary to figure out the function and to fill in the empty cells at the same time. My teacher asked me to help explain this new way of learning math to the class. These years were also filled with the Boy Scouts, a formative and important experience for me that taught me much about the outdoors, leadership, character, and accomplishment, and I have many great memories of camping and hiking. I received my Eagle Scout Award in 1967 from my father (the Scoutmaster of Troop 235) and my grandfather Moerner, both Eagle Scouts.

It was during the grades 7–9 at Longfellow Junior High School that additional key interests blossomed. I played clarinet and then bassoon in the orchestra, and I sang with a wonderful guitar/folk music group named the Acadians. I also served on the stage crew during assembly events to satisfy my desire to know how things were working behind the scenes. One course I remember vividly was Mrs. Gates' 9th grade geometry class not only because I enjoyed all the material thoroughly, but also all the kids who also were good at math were in this class; this formed a critical nucleus for many close friends in high school later. These years also included me helping my father repair things, especially cars. I remember one time we were changing the oil in his car, and I dutifully removed the plug to drain the oil into a pan, put the oil away, and then carefully started pouring oil into the fill hole on the top of the engine without replacing the plug first! This kind of silly mistake was met with hilarious laughter from me and my father, the right way to deal with a simple error. How else does one really learn, without trying and making errors now and then? Learn from the mistake and move on! I also won the Grand Prize at the 8th grade science fair by measuring the viscosity of various motor oils using timed flow out of a calibrated pipette. This was a key early exposure to experimental science for me, involving many careful measurements and preparation to determine if multi-weight motor oils were truly different from single weight oils (Fig. 2). I am embarrassed to admit that I pipetted these oils with my mouth, a dangerous practice that has since been abandoned! Partly due to the influence from my father, I also furthered my interest in electronics by reading parts of my father's book, Elements of Radio, by Abraham and William Marcus, which eventually led to various electronics projects. There were so many mysteries to understand! There were also mistakes to be made - I clearly remember when I got shocked working to repair the washing machine in my bare feet.

Eighth Grade Science Fair Project.

It was some time during the Junior High School years that my "Clubhouse" appeared in the back yard of our home. This was a steel box-like shed structure my father likely acquired from military surplus. It was too short to stand up in, so my grandfather Robinson, my father, and I built a wooden vertical extension with push-out windows for ventilation and greater height. This was the place for experiments from the chemistry sets my parents bought for me! Simple acid/ base reactions, burning metal powders, pH measurements, etc. were all great fun, mostly taken from The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, by Robert Brent. I also had a wonderful time picking up huge old discarded TV sets, and I proceeded to unsolder every single component and sort them into capacitors, resistors, diodes, coils, etc.

My subsequent three years at Thomas Jefferson High School (Jeff) produced a further explosion of activities and interests. My mother always said, "It is not enough just to be smart, but you also have to be well-rounded." She also said "Idleness is the Devil's workshop," so I stayed busy. The grand campus of Jeff, with 980 plus students in each grade, was built in the classical Spanish Moorish design in 1932 just after the Depression, and today it is a Texas Historical Landmark. I was an outstanding student (one of five Valedictorians) who greatly enjoyed all the sciences: chemistry, biology, and physics, as well as many extracurricular clubs like BiPhyChem, the Math Club, and even the Russian Club. I was also involved in the debate team, and I played bass clarinet and bassoon in the band! All of these activities were great fun, such as playing and marching at the football games, serving as Editor of the literary magazine Each Has Spoken, or serving as the Captain of the "On the Spot" high school current events contest on the local TV station. My outside scientific interests in electronics grew even more with Heathkit shortwave radios, and my father and I (WN5ARM) got our amateur radio licenses in 1970 with the help of the Radio and Electronics Club at Jeff run by the physics teacher, Mr. Greenburg. Although I got distracted by other interests in college, amateur radio formed a foundation for my later work with lasers and it is still one of my favorite hobbies.

In the summer of 1970 between Junior and Senior years, a critical event occurred: I attended a National Science Foundation Student Science Training Program at Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana. This stimulating program covered Electronics, Chemical Kinetics, and Computer Science, setting the stage for my multidisciplinary interests later! We lived in the dorms, went to class, performed laboratory experiments, and had field trips to many nearby refineries and research centers. This experience set the stage for my future research interests and I loved every minute.

My most significant action during high school was the decision to follow the advice of a forward-thinking school counselor, Mrs. Blanche Rodriguez, who encouraged me to apply for a Langsdorf Engineering Fellowship to attend Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. This fateful step was far out of the usual for my fairly provincial Texas-centered family, and it ultimately caused me to bypass the local Texas universities, thus broadening my perspective and world view.

Undergraduate Education

The summer before starting college I got a real job, as a statistical computer programmer for a biostatistician, Dr. Richard G. Domey, at the University of Texas Medical School in San Antonio. This was a useful way to expand my FORTRAN programming skills learned the summer before to write programs to analyze marine science data. My first publication was subsequently written with Dr. Domey and reported a factor analysis of the distributions of marine organisms in the Kuroshio Sea of Japan.

Heading off to Washington University as a Langsdorf Engineering Fellow was a watershed experience. "WashU" is one of the few universities with full tuition scholarships for top students (and I would not have been able to attend without the scholarship), plus the Langsdorf Program provided a nucleus of compatriots who were also friendly competitors at times. I joined a  wonderful community of engineering students and truly relished every aspect of college, from the stimulating and challenging classes, to my many friends inside and outside engineering, to the further expansion of my interests in math and science. Even though it was tough on my parents for me to leave Texas, they were so supportive through it all, and not only paid room and board, but also sent me spending money every month. A further twist of fate during the WashU years occurred when I had to register for the draft. This was the last draft for the Vietnam War, and I was number 66 (!), but during the physical exam they learned that my eyes were so nearsighted that I received a "4F" - I could not be drafted and I could not enlist! Thus my path was clear for uninterrupted study.

I started out as an electrical engineering (EE) major, and the goal was to build on my interests in electronics and radio to pursue an engineering career. (I came in with Advanced Placement credits in Chemistry, so my love of this subject was postponed to later.) Many of the EE courses such as linear systems, microwaves, and communication theory were truly fun - the power of science combined with the need to make something with a purpose was thrilling. However, as an engineering major, I had to take many prerequisite courses in physics and mathematics. The introduction to physics course taught by Prof. James Burgess was so exciting to me, that I decided to add physics as a major. I still clearly remember taking quantum mechanics from a great physicist, Prof. Richard Norberg, another strong influence on me. My mathematics courses started out with a very difficult challenge, "Advanced Calculus," which involved many proofs with epsilons and deltas. However, the subsequent mathematics courses, such as linear algebra, differential equations, complex variables, and group theory were quite enjoyable. Well, it turned out that at WashU, if a student satisfied all the requirements for a degree, then the student would graduate with that degree, even if some of the prerequisite courses were shared between more than one degree program! The many courses I took, combined with advanced placement coming in, made it possible for me to graduate in 1975 with three degrees: Bachelor of Science in Physics with top honors, a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering with top honors; and an Artium Baccalaurei (A. B.) in Mathematics summa cum laude. I was proud to be recognized with the Ethan A. H. Shepley Award by the university.

On the fun side, one highlight was living in an engineering suite as a sophomore and spending some time helping Ed Snyder build a harpsichord. Another was meeting R. Burr Stewart while listening to Glenn Miller records during senior year; he became my lifelong best friend. We had many memorable experiences, even including flying with him as he piloted a small plane across the state of Missouri. Music continued to be another favorite hobby, and I returned to singing in church choirs at Second Presbyterian Church at the advice of another engineering friend, W. Wayne Ritchie, the Assistant Organist. It was very exciting to perform the Fauré Requiem and other great oratorios at Second Pres, because the choir gets to sing from a balcony just in front of a great pipe organ. During this time, I also received my second nickname, "Weo," from a south St. Louis German-American father of a girlfriend, who just could not call me "W. E."! He decided to call me "Weo" as this was the slogan of the A&P grocery stores at the time, which stood for "Where Economy Originates." Well, at least this was printed on the grocery bags, so I got some free advertising! This moniker is still used by my family and closest friends.

I had the great pleasure to begin serious experimental research in college when I joined the group of Prof. James G. Miller in the Physics Department. His group has pioneered many advances in the area of ultrasound, from fundamental studies in solids to extensive applications of ultrasound to medicine, especially cardiology. In many ways, Jim Miller was a critically important mentor, and my experience in Jim's lab set the stage for me to continue to excel and to pursue research in experimental solid state physics afterward. Not only did he teach me more about the scientific method, ferromagnetism, and ultrasound, but he also ran a group of graduate students and postdocs where the environment welcomed me as an undergraduate in every way. I spent many years working in the lab, as well as multiple summers and winter recesses, and proudly coauthored several papers. One particular topic gave me early exposure to the problem of extraction of specific physical quantities from experiments: The project involved determination of ultrasonic velocities from resonator frequency shifts, which   I worked on under the tutelage of Harry Ringermacher, who was collaborating with Jim Miller while completing his PhD research under Dick Norberg. Knowing about ultrasonics was helpful to the single-molecule detection work in 1989, because one of the validations used ultrasonic strain waves to modulate the single-molecule absorption lines. Jim Miller was also a close personal friend, and he often patiently listened to me wax about the various personal situations that are common for an intense and precocious undergraduate, something I will never forget.

Graduate Studies

I applied to a number of graduate schools across the country to continue my studies in physics, and I was attracted to the Physics Department at Cornell University due to its particular excellence in solid state physics. Thus, in the fall of 1975, an engineering friend, Pat Jeffries, and I set out to share an  apartment "Far above Cayuga's waters" in Ithaca, New York. This began an intense six years of study, where I joined a cadre of outstanding graduate students herded by an excellent faculty. Outside the lab, Ithaca taught me a great deal about dealing with truly cold weather and snow, and I learned a bit about how to ski at the nearby Greek Peak; not a lot more than a hill, but just right for a beginner from Texas. I also enjoyed the strong seasons, the many opportunities for hiking and camping in the beautiful country nearby, and two years in a close relationship with Burr Stewart's sister, Ann. Continuing my music interests, I played harpsichord with a pickup group of physics graduate students, sang in the Cornell Glee Club for one semester, spent a number of years singing with the local group Ithaca A Cappella, and even performed the role of Sir Joseph Porter with the Cornell Gilbert and Sullivan troupe! But these were all secondary to my focus on my graduate research.

At Cornell I was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship for the first few years, and I started out with my desk in the famous low temperature physics group headed by Prof. Robert Richardson, Prof. John Reppy, and Prof. David Lee. Bob Richardson was eventually on my thesis committee, and I had the pleasure and honor to assist this inspiring scientist and educator in a special public evening lecture on low temperature physics in 1978. Years later, Bob always asked about my work when we met at meetings of the National Academy of Sciences. Even though the low temperature group was filled with exciting physics mostly about the fascinating properties of superfluid 3He (the area which would win the Nobel Prize in 1996 for Lee, Doug Osheroff, and Richardson), in January 1976 I became attracted to the far-infrared spectroscopy group of Prof. Albert J. Sievers III.

Al Sievers' lab was a truly exciting environment in which to study solid state physics. His work addressed almost any process that occurred in the far infrared (FIR) region of the spectrum, broadly defined, from 1 cm–1 to the edge of the visible. This huge range covered phonons, impurity modes in solids, superconductivity, internal vibrational modes of molecules, vibrational modes on surfaces, and many other physical effects. As such, the students and postdocs in Al's lab worked on a wide range of projects, mostly using the tools of spectroscopy with lamellar and Michelson interferometers as well as lasers. His style of mentoring provided much flexibility for the students, as he believed that graduate students should find their own way in order to develop true independence, a key value that I use today with my own group. Al proposed a number of novel but risky small projects to get me started, on bismuth as a FIR source, on indium antimonide as a spin-flip Raman laser, etc. and most of these failed yet taught me a great deal, mostly through Al's physical insight and the tutelage of the other Sievers' group members like Rick Aurbach, Yves Chabal, Aland Chin, Eric Schiff, Don Trotter, and many others. One project involved the superconducting properties of palladium hydride created by ultrahigh pressure hydrogen gas. Because hydrogen can cause damage to hardened metals, I had to condense liquid hydrogen into a large hardened BeCu cell, and then vaporize the liquid by heating, which yielded hydrogen gas pressures in the range of 25,000 psi!

Eventually our interests turned to the infrared vibrational modes of molecular impurities in alkali halide crystals. I specialized in the perrhenate ion, ReO-4, which can substitute for the anion in a variety of alkali halide crystals, customgrown in the physics department facility. It turned out that particular CO2 laser lines were resonant with one vibrational mode of this molecule. I spent a very fruitful time studying the optical properties of this system with the methods of high resolution laser spectroscopy, starting out with optical saturation effects. This work was a continuation of work by a previous graduate student, Andrew Chraplyvy, who was a great colleague, mentor, friend, and collaborator. After his graduation from Al's lab in 1978, Andy worked at General Motors Research Labs developing fully tunable infrared lasers, and he brought a bunch of these back to Cornell for some highly focused spectroscopy sessions with me on several occasions. These two week visits were very intense and truly great fun, and we accomplished a lot. We needed these tunable lasers, because we wanted to study the process termed "photophysical spectral hole-burning" that we had discovered in the low temperature inhomogeneously broadened absorption profile of ReO-4 in crystalline hosts like KI and RbI. Hole-burning here means that at the irradiation frequency, the absorption would reduce, producing a dip or "hole," a relatively new spectroscopic effect which had been observed for electronic transitions in the visible around 1974 but was quite new for molecular vibrational modes (Fig. 3). Andy's tunable lasers were put to good use, and I developed a dual CO2 laser approach as well, where one laser burns the hole, and a second one is tuned over a very small range on the order of 10 MHz to scan the shape of the hole.

Albert J. Sievers III, Andy Chraplyvy, and me at Cornell studying the ReO-4 molecule in a crystalline model to understand its spectral hole-burning mechanism.

A tough setback occurred for me in 1979 when my mother passed away from the breast cancer she had fought for some years. This left me very sad because she was so central to my earlier upbringing. Such events do affect an only child more than children with siblings, but I learned early on that it is best to pick up and move on in the face of events out of my control. I worked to help my father recover, and soon he chose to find a new wife, eventually marrying Maria Esther Soto Vertiz from Mexico in 1981, who ended up taking care of him for 30+ years, something for which I am very grateful. Back in Ithaca, I threw myself into my thesis research on ReO-4  in solids, and the writing of  my massive 619 page dissertation was completed in the fall of 1981. I received  the
M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics from Cornell University in 1978 and 1982, respectively, formally in solid state physics, but the connection of this work to infrared vibrational modes in solids placed this research a bit closer to what is termed chemical physics.

It is clear that my experience with hole-burning in the infrared was instrumental to my next job along the way, which also concerned this process.

Independent Professional Career: IBM Research

I enjoyed research so much that after Cornell I decided to join one of the great corporate research labs which were churning out many advances at the time. I bypassed an offer from Bell Laboratories and instead joined the IBM Research Division in San Jose, California as a Research Staff Member. My experiences at Cornell motivated me to join an intense program there to develop spectral holeburning in the visible for frequency domain optical storage. Thus in the fall of 1981 I drove across the country to the San Francisco Bay Area where I have lived ever since (with the exception of three years in southern California described below). The physical science community at IBM Research was led by George Castro, Ed Engler, and Jerry Swalen, and am happy that these three took a chance on me. I had the opportunity to interact with several great laser spectroscopists, including Gary Bjorklund (who taught me laser FM spectroscopy, the ultrasensitive method used later to detect a single molecule), Marc Levenson, Roger Macfarlane, and Bob Shelby, and with top chemists such as Grant Willson, Robert Twieg, and many others, all set in the background of a company laboratory with a goal to be "famous for our science and technology." This was a wonderfully stimulating interdisciplinary environment ideally matched to my broad background, because it was easy to change hats between being a physicist to being an engineer, and I had an opportunity to become a physical chemist as well. Because Roger and Bob covered inorganics for hole-burning, I decided to concentrate on hole-burning in organic materials, stepping into the role of Dietrich Haarer who had recently returned to Germany, and I took on the responsibility for learning about electronic transitions, photophysics, and photochemistry of organic molecules in solids. I benefited greatly from temporary visits from Dick Caldwell from the University of Texas at Dallas and Bryan Kohler from Wesleyan University, who both taught me much physical chemistry in the mold of the great book, Modern Molecular Photochemistry, by Nick Turro. Even though researchers at IBM had very small groups under their direct control, the research environment thrived in the 1980s due to the cross-fertilization and collaborative interactions between different scientists. I was fortunate that I was encouraged to publish much of my work, as this kept the door open to academia later.

A major life event occurred in 1982, when I decided to join the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of San Jose to pursue my musical interests, and to get out of the lab to meet people (women, to be more exact). After my partner in the operetta Gondoliers dropped out, the Director, Ruth Stein, paired me with her daughter, Sharon Stein, who had just graduated from Oberlin College and was working 72 hour shifts as a counselor at a facility for abused children. She was a perfect partner, friendly, talented, smart, and vivacious, with the long arms required to meet mine during the many dances, and we quickly fell in love! Sharon turned out to be the eldest of the "G&S" family of San Jose, in that her mother, and her father, Michel Stein, both physicians, directed and produced many, many shows as they helped found the group some years before. They welcomed me quickly into the family and we rented a house in San Jose. When Sharon got a letter to join a graduate program in psychology in Denver, it was time to propose to prevent her from leaving! We were married in her parents' back yard on June 19, 1983 (Fig. 4). Sharon then pursued a Master's in psychology at San Jose State University followed by a Ph.D. at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Menlo Park, California. We lived in Fremont, California for some years before moving back to the Almaden Valley in San Jose in 1986, when the IBM lab moved from the San Jose disk drive plant site to its beautiful present home in the hills above the Almaden Valley.

Wedding party, L-R: Burr (best man) and Barb Stewart, Sharon’s brother Doug, her sister Debra, Sharon, me, Michel and Ruth Stein, William A. (father) and Esther Moerner (stepmother).

The 1980s were a time of intense and exciting research at IBM as well as good times for me and Sharon with our friends and family. An earthquake in 1984 energized me to re-acquire my ham radio license to be able to communicate during emergencies, and Sharon later got her license, too. She used her excellent communication and organizational skills to become District Emergency Coordinator for the Santa Clara Valley Section, covering 13 cities. A close friend from IBM and ham radio, Dave Palmer, and his wife, Darcy, were common companions on radio and camping trips. After spending some years working on spectral hole-burning, in roughly 1987 I began the critical experiments (first with Tom Carter) which eventually led to the first optical detection and spectroscopy of  a single molecule in a solid with Lothar Kador in 1989. This was mostly at the prescient urging of my IBM managers to "do the best science possible." But 1989 was filled with other major events, too. Sharon and I traveled to Japan for a lovely vacation in September, but then the Loma Prieta Earthquake hit a few weeks later on October 17, interrupting all our activities. Sharon led the hams in the local response, and I worked to get the lab cleaned up. All this was stressful enough, but two weeks later I returned to Japan for a major business trip to give roughly five talks in five days. I learned my physical limits at this time!

The following year, with Sharon's dissertation completed at last, it became time to grow our family, and early in 1991 she was "great with child" during her Ph.D. oral examination while I stood by with the car ready to rush her to the hospital! This was not necessary, and on a foggy and cold morning a month later I did drive her to the hospital where our son, Daniel Everett Moerner, was born on February 10, 1991. It has been a glorious and thrilling time to see Daniel grow from an incredibly bright boy to a brilliant and caring man.

Things did not go so well for IBM in the early 1990s, and after the major corporate loss of $8 billion in 1993, I began to consider alternate career paths. Although the research was highly stimulating, I felt a need to be able to expand my mind and my projects beyond my small lab at IBM Almaden. With the support of my  managers, I took an 8 month sabbatical in 1993–1994 to become a Visiting Guest Professor in the lab of Prof. Dr. Urs P. Wild at ETH-Zürich, Switzerland. This was a time of more stimulating single-molecule research and was a mind-expanding experience which showed me that I could see a path for me other than being a lifelong IBMer, and that I should now tackle the challenge of making a career change after 13 years at IBM. Sharon and Daniel had a great time charging around Switzerland, albeit temporarily interrupting her career as a clinical psychologist.

Moving to Academia

With the quarterly profit fixation that was occurring at IBM plus the push to even pay the top scientists to leave, in 1994 I began interviewing for faculty positions in the western U.S. so that we could be close to Sharon's family. I wanted to work for an organization centered on knowledge: the generation of new knowledge as well as the transfer of knowledge to young minds. I received offers from both physics and chemistry departments, but the best one came from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. My  family took the leap and moved south to La Jolla, California,  in 1995, where I took a chaired position at UCSD as Distinguished Professor of Physical Chemistry. What followed was a key transformation, where I was able to broaden my research interests and applications of single molecules to include biological systems and biophysics, encouraged by the department chair Katja Lindenberg and key faculty mentors such as Kent Wilson. I enjoyed many professional interactions at UCSD, notably with Larry Goldstein on kinesin, with Bruno Zimm on polymer dynamics, with Jay Siegel on new molecules for photorefractivity, and with Roger Tsien on the study of variants of the green fluorescence protein for which he won the Nobel Prize in 2008. It was at UCSD, in Urey Hall, that the first imaging of single copies of yellow fluorescent protein was performed with Rob Dickson. We did live near the beach, but did not have a view of the spectacular ocean; in fact I was only able to find time to go to the beach a couple of times a year. But I still love the views of the ocean from the Torrey Pines State Reserve and the fact that it is possible to put your feet into the ocean on January 1 in La Jolla!

In 1997, having proved that I could teach and win additional grants to support my research, Harvard and Stanford decided to work to attract me away from UCSD. This was a very difficult decision to make, given that I had only recently arrived at UCSD. However, Sharon had been working with difficult patients and with her family still back in the Bay Area, we decided to move to Stanford in 1998. Sharon and Daniel moved first so that he could start second grade in Los Altos as quickly as possible, and I commuted back and forth from San Diego to Palo Alto for an entire year, designing and overseeing my new laboratory design and construction. I began as Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Stanford, then I became the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry in 2002, followed by Professor, by courtesy, of Applied Physics in 2005, and I then served as the Chair of the Chemistry Department (2011–2014). Throughout this time at both UCSD and Stanford, I have been blessed by wonderful graduate students, postdocs, and collaborations, and my work has focused on single-molecule imaging, spectroscopy, trapping, and related areas of biophysics, nanophotonics, and materials.

My family, December 10, 2014.

In every way, I have been extremely fortunate in my life in that I have been able to pursue my passions in science and in my personal life with general good health. For thirty-one years to the present, my wife has been my steadfast companion and rock of support, and I cannot thank her enough. My son, a deep thinker specializing in philosophy, has been a true joy and fellow music lover throughout, and I am very happy that he could experience Stockholm as well (Fig. 5). My parents and Sharon's parents did not live to see my Nobel Prize, but their love and support were truly instrumental in this accomplishment. I look forward to continuing my career as a perpetual student, not willing to fit into any specific box and continuing to learn new areas of science.


From The Nobel Prizes 2014. Published on behalf of The Nobel Foundation by Science History Publications/USA, division Watson Publishing International LLC, Sagamore Beach, 2015

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2014


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