Jacques Dubochet

Biographical

Jacques DubochetM
y curriculum vitae has been on my personal page of the University of Lausanne’s website for a long time. Few people had looked at it so far. Suddenly, with the news of the Nobel Prize, it became a worldwide buzz almost overnight. All of this because people found it, let’s say, “unusual”. But why is it so unusual? Of course, there is little place for creativity in a resume sent to apply for a position in some political institution or international firms – but why not being a little bit imaginative when presenting yourself on your own, personal web page?

This old CV has been rejuvenated to fit recent developments and has been enriched with commentaries. It is presented below.

October 1941

Conceived by optimistic parents.

This was a bad time. The Germans were approaching Moscow. Switzerland was encircled by countries under the Nazi or Fascist regime. My father, a civil engineer, was building fortifications for the army. My mother Liliane was taking care of my sister Michèle, 3, and my brother Emmanuel, 2.

Born June 8, 1942

1946

No longer scared of the dark, because the sun comes back; it was Copernicus who explained this.

To make it simple – too simple almost – two solutions were offered to me: prayers with my Protestant mother or logical explanation from my atheist father. As time passed, the second option seemed more and more alluring.

1948–1955

1st part of an experimental scientific career in Wallis and Lausanne (instruments: knives, needles, strings, matches).

My father was building a dam, high in the mountain. We were living in a small village where electricity was recently brought in. At school, there were two classes for the boys, each with a wooden stove in the middle. The good boys were allowed to sit close to the stove, while the bad boys had to sit by the window. Since we were the engineer’s children, our place was by the stove of course! We spent the six-month-long summer holidays in a chalet further up, closer to Dad’s work. We had no electricity, and no shops close by. Rye bread was getting hard after a few weeks. There was a big rock, too big for me − but not so big as I realized when I came back as an adult – on which my brother and sister were spending hours climbing and playing. There were thousands of other adventure grounds and experimenting places all around and down by the river.

Then we went to the big city of Sion and to the even larger capital of Lausanne where I had to find my way – with difficulty – through a more standard education system. I succeeded somehow in passing the college examination (normally passed at 11, but I was already one year late).

1955

First official dyslexic in the canton of Vaud − this licensed me to be bad at everything … and allowed me to understand those with difficulties.

It didn’t take long for my parents to find out that my grades were not promising, but they noticed that my spelling mistakes – as those of my brother – were unusual. They drew the attention of the college’s director to this. He decided to take the case further and this is how I became the first recognized dyslexic child of the Canton. This meant that I was allowed to pass from one class to the next in spite of more and more catastrophic grades. This was a bad time. From being bad in spelling I soon became very bad in everything, because dyslexia was my “laziness pillow”. Not completely though; following the instructions of the book by Jean Texereau, I was building a 15 cm aperture telescope. My handwork teacher spent more time helping me than he spent with all my classmates put together. The college director retired shortly before I reached the end of the compulsory school program. It didn’t take long until I was dismissed. Still optimistic, and creative, my parents sent me to the boarding school of Kantonschule Trogen, deep in Swiss-German speaking central Switzerland. The message was clear: either I move on, or I get stuck. One year later, the German teacher asked me to give a talk to the class. I spoke about rockets, and it was good. I knew I was on my way to becoming a scientist. And that was the end of the central-Switzerland episode.

1962

Federal maturity exam.

After the salutary shake-up in Trogen, my parents sent me to a private school in Lausanne where I could prepare the examination for entering University. It was a time of intense catching up. I am still surprised by how much a teenager or young adult can learn when he is motivated. My cultural background of poetry, music, history, and geography is still strong − but it’s not as much about language and spelling. The maturity examination went well.

Shy and polite, but socially unskilled, I gained preliminary social experience in homes for disabled children where my sister – a work therapist – brought me during the holidays. Then it was the military service. I still have nightmares from this time, but I benefitted there from meeting regular human beings. I became an officer, even though I wasn’t exactly fit for the job.

1967

Physicist-engineer at EPUL, with the intention to become a biologist.

I wanted to understand more about the world, the living world in particular, and to become a scientist. It was a time during which Physics were shaping Biology. Watson, Crick, Kendrew and Perutz had won their Nobel Prizes. Quite obviously, I chose to study Physics at EPUL, École Polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne (now federalized as EPFL), where my father had studied Civil Engineering. I found calculus difficult during the first year and, contrary to some of my admired classmates, I never became a skilled mathematician. Nevertheless, I tremendously enjoyed everything I learned. I felt more and more at home in Physics, mostly thanks to my professor Jean-Pierre Borel and to the three volumes of Feynman’s “Lectures on Physics”.

During my second year I went up to my preferred professor and I asked him for advice. ”Where shall I go for a PhD in Biology when I am finished with my diploma?” He had the answer: ”Prof. Édouard Kellenberger, at the laboratory for Biophysics in Geneva.” So there I went. Édouard was very friendly and he offered me a position as a doctoral assistant. ”Oh, not so fast,” I replied, ”I have 3 more years to go with my studies in Lausanne.” ”OK, come back in 3 years.” Three years later, I was there again. In the meantime, Édouard had been to the States and married Cornelia, and he had forgotten me. I got the doctoral assistant position anyway.

The Laboratory for Biophysics at the University of Geneva was a remarkable place (Strasser, 2006) – one of those in which Molecular Biology was introduced in Europe. Science was practiced there in a most enthusiastic, creative, and open way. Mountain touring and climbing the Salève were the only limitations on the long working hours in Biology courses and in the lab with my electron microscope – an old RCA EMU2.

1968

Very important.

Then came the student revolution. We couldn’t escape. We didn’t. Unprepared, I played along the game of being politically active in the midst of big turmoil. We were left-oriented of course, but our group 2002 (that was its name) was not along the general line. We had a strong involvement in environmental protection. I cherish the memory of the moment when, having climbed high on a pole to plaster a poster against a car exhibition, I saw, down below on the street, two smiling policemen waiting for me to come down. That stunt cost me a major part of my meager salary.

A friend, more committed to the revolution than me, gave up his studies and rejected his family. His father, a banker driving a big black car, told me – perhaps because I still looked a bit reasonable − “Don’t worry, he will soon become normal again.” I told myself, “For sure, I’ll never be ‘normal again’ as he means it”.

1969

Certificate of Molecular Biology in Geneva to become a biophysicist. Began to study electron microscopy of DNA, which remains my main topic.

My diploma in Physics didn’t bring me much in Biology. The certificate was designed to bridge the gap in order to form this new kind of scientist: the biophysicist. Namely: those who are biologists but with the spirit of a physicist. I took courses with Biology students and, more importantly, I discovered the strange way of living of those dedicated to the observation of natural life. With them, I woke up at dawn for bird watching and digging the soil to count earthworms.

1973

Thesis in biophysics at Geneva and Basel with Édouard Kellenberger who taught me Biophysics, ethical responsibility and durable friendship.

Édouard Kellenberger was called from Geneva to lead the final construction and early operation of the new Biocenter at the University of Basel. He took with him a group of colleagues and students. Most of us were still politically active. My bias was still towards environmental protection and durability, but the work in the laboratory was my major activity. I became the first Philosophy II graduate from the Biocenter with a PhD entitled ”Contribution to dark-field electron microscopy”. In fact, dark field was a minor part of the PhD and the conclusion was that it is not very useful for biological observation. However, I learned how to operate an electron microscope and a lot about the strange behavior of matter at small dimension.

1970–1976

Very classic psychoanalysis.

As it should be, my affective life was quite intense during my psychoanalysis. Toward the end of this period, I met Christine. Our second encounter was during a manifestation against a planned nuclear power plant near Basel (the plant was never built). Christine is an art historian from Basel and Paris. She was teaching art at school. We settled in together and got married when she decided to move with me to Heidelberg.

What did I get from the unreasonable effort of a Freudian psychoanalysis? I asked myself this question, walking along the Rhine after my last session. The answer I gave to myself was ”I don’t know yet, but in ten years’ time I will come back to this”. Ten years later, I thought the decision was pretty good. Ten more years later, I thought it was very good. At present I do believe that it was the best decision of my life, together with the other one – living with Christine.

1978

Group leader at EMBL (Heidelberg); how to deal with water in electron microscopy. Discovery of water vitrification and development of electron cryo-microscopy.

The newly formed European Molecular Biology Laboratory, hidden in a beautiful forest above the old city of Heidelberg, was a kind of paradise for research. John Kendrew, the initiator of the laboratory and first General Director, appointed a host of young scientists with ambitious projects. Everything was arranged for us to work freely under the best conditions, with the sole expectation of producing knowledge of significance. My project consisted in learning how to deal with water in electron cryo-microscopy. It didn’t start well but we have been lucky for the rest. The story has been told elsewhere (Dubochet, 2011).

At this time, we were living in a small village in a vineyard south of Heidelberg. Christine gave birth to a boy, Gilles, and 18 months later to a girl, Lucy. I was used to working early in the morning and coming back in the middle of the afternoon. I had the opportunity of participating closely in family life. We also had a good group of parents sharing the care of the children as well as their education. It was a great time!

1987

Professor at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), Department of Ultrastructural Analysis.

I was among the lucky few who had a permanent contract at EMBL. Nevertheless, I was attracted by teaching and I doubted that I could be creative all my remaining professional life in pure research only. I didn’t hesitate to accept the offer for a professorship in Lausanne, which involved the management of the well-established Electron Microscopy Center with its service duty, and the chance to install a brand new Laboratory for Ultrastructural Analysis where I could pursue my own research under favorable conditions.

During the 20 years as professor in Lausanne, I also had the chance to extend my research work in the field of science and society. We developed a compulsory curriculum whose aim was to make sure that our students are as good citizens as they are good biologists.

1998

President of the Biology section with the chance to perform this assignment with Nicole Galland and Pierre Hainard, and to live at a moment when interesting things were happening in Biology in Lausanne.

Yes, interesting things indeed. This was the time when a major rearrangement took place between UNIL and EPFL. The principle was simple. At that time, Biology was the exclusivity of UNIL but departments of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry existed both at UNIL and EPFL. This seemed unreasonable. It was decided to concentrate these three activities exclusively at EPFL and to reinforce Biology accordingly at UNIL. The continuation was more complicated. I discovered what real politics were. The result was, indeed, the move of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry to EPFL but, in an unexpected twist, EPFL also developed a strong department of Life Sciences and, at UNIL, what was left of the Faculty of Sciences merged with Medicine into the new Faculty of Biology and Medicine. The result is probably better than the original plan, but what a stir it all was!

2002

End of the assignment. Sabbatical in Australia, Germany and Paris.

2004–2007

Maturation of CEMOVIS (cryo-electron microscopy of vitreous sections).

The success of electron cryo-microscopy relies on the observation of very thin specimens, in the sub-µm range. This is even too thin for the observation of a single normal cell, without speaking of a tissue or of a complex organism. From the start, our electron cryo-microscopy project included the observation of bulky specimens. For that aim, the strategy consists in vitrifying a volume as large as possible and then cutting it into vitreous sections that can be directly observed in the electron cryo-microscope. The method faces a number of difficulties that we summarized with the acronym SIVEMCATOR (Al-Amoudi, Studer and Dubochet, 2004) which, for some, is the symbolic expression of the hopeless task that I imposed on a number of my collaborators. I think they are wrong. The need for electron cryo-microscopy of bulky specimens is obvious and CEMOVIS is the most direct avenue to solve it. My guess is that the success of the thin film vitrification method applied to macromolecular complexes or small organels has depleted the group of those ready to accept the most challenging task of studying large objects. This will change. The future of CEMOVIS is bright.

2007

June Retirement Colloquium.

2007 =>

Host of the Department of Ecology and Evolution. Science and Society for the elderly.

Retirement in Swiss universities is compulsory at age 65. Some try to find a solution to continue the work they are trained for and good at. I thought that, with a bit of luck, 65 years would not prove to be so old. Statistically, it leaves you with about 20 years of creative life. I decided to cultivate my 4 “S”. The first S stands for Self, taking good care of oneself. The second S is for Social, living together. I started teaching mathematics − that is 2+3 – to young migrants; the effort broadened and I went into politics in my small city and, back like in the old days, to the movement for environmental protection. The 3d S stands for Science, because I love it. I have the chance to keep my mind on it, through direct contact with my colleagues at the university, where they generously left me an office desk. The last S means Service, because the fruits of the quince tree are better as marmalade than rotting on the ground, and because dishes must be placed in the dishwasher. My sister gave me the advice to devote the first year of retirement to learning this new job. At the end of the year, I found that a second year of training was necessary. Ten years later, the work is still in progress.

The children are grown up. We have a son-in-law from India. They are all working for the common good or development help. They have not yet made us grandparents, even if we are active members of the association “Grandparents for the climate” (https:/www.gpclimat.ch/fr/).

October 4, 2017

Ouch! A Nobel Prize

Christine says: “It’s a good thing for us that you got it late and that you had 10 years of retirement to broaden your scope.”


Bibliography

Al-Amoudi, A., Studer, D., & Dubochet, J. (2005). “Cutting artefacts and cutting process in vitreous sections for cryo-electron microscopy” J Struct Biol, 150(1), 109–121.
Dubochet, J. (2011). “Cryo-EM – The first thirty years” J Microscopy, 245(3), 221– 224.
Strasser, B. J. (2006). La fabrique d’une nouvelle science: La biologie moléculaire à l’âge atomique (1945–1964). Leo S. Olschki, Geneva.

From The Nobel Prizes 2017. Published on behalf of The Nobel Foundation by Science History Publications/USA, division Watson Publishing International LLC, Sagamore Beach, 2018

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 2017

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MLA style: Jacques Dubochet – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Thu. 21 Oct 2021. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2017/dubochet/biographical/>

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