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From immigrant to Nobel Prize winner – scientist to shine light on microscopy discovery at IET Kelvin Lecture

04 April 2016


Nobel Prize-winning scientist will share inspirational journey from immigrant in former West Germany to his life-changing discovery which enables deadly diseases to be examined under a microscope in closer detail than at any point in history.

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist is to share his inspirational journey from being a teenage immigrant in the former West Germany to his life-changing discovery which enables deadly diseases to be examined under a microscope in closer detail than at any point in history.

Professor Stefan Hell, who was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, takes to the stage to deliver the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) annual Kelvin Lecture later this week (Thursday 7 April). Thanks to Professor Hell, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany, living cells and tissues can be imaged at the nanoscale – usually cited as 1–100 nanometers, with 1 nanometer a billionth of a meter. Previously a light microscope relying on conventional optical lenses could not discern details much finer than half the wavelength of light (200-400mm) due to diffraction.

Professor Hell overcame the diffraction-limited resolution barrier by developing a method in which one light pulse causes fluorescent molecules to glow, while another causes all molecules except those in a very narrow area to become dark, effectively turning them on and off. Significantly, this makes it possible to “image more sharply” and track processes occurring inside living cells. Professor Hell picked up the Nobel Prize 20 years on from his discovery.

“We can now overcome the diffraction barrier in a light-focusing microscope by separating living cells and tissues through a molecular state, and this is a major discovery,” Professor Hell will explain to the audience gathering at the IET’s Savoy Place. “Now we understand the principles we can develop them further. We can make microscopes faster, we can further improve the spatial resolution, and apply them to all kinds of problems, not just in life sciences but in material sciences. The basic principle in my view is very simple – this is just the beginning. Discoveries are already being made, but the potential for more is huge because you can see things in a greater level of detail.”

Romanian-born Professor Hell has overcome many challenges throughout his life, not least when he left his home in the town of Sântana at the age of 15 to move to West Germany with his parents – his father being an engineer, and his mother a teacher. He began his studies at Heidelberg University in 1981, receiving his doctorate in physics in 1990. "When I was a student I would spend hours or days over a single phenomenon – really studying in detail to get to the bottom of the problem – this is, and always has been, part of my personality,” Professor Hell said. “One of the biggest challenges I faced with our discovery was actually changing the mindset of people that this problem could be resolved. There were proposals in the past that failed, and that was a big part of the scepticism. But once I discovered that the problems were technical, rather than conceptual or fundamental, that kept me going because technical problems can always be resolved over time.”

Professor Hell also encouraged young scientists to give time to their own voyage of discovery. “I didn’t explicitly have a role model – I admired a number of different scientists, but you have to find your own way. People need to follow their passion because if they like their work they work harder and are more creative,” he added.

Naomi Climer, IET President said: “Professor Hell’s journey is truly amazing, and his discovery is something that should inspire every budding scientist in the country. We thank him for sharing his personal story at this year’s IET Kelvin Lecture. Once again, it demonstrates the importance of investment in STEM subjects.”

The 2016 IET Kelvin Lecture, “Optical microscopy: the resolution revolution”, takes place on Thursday 7 April 2016 at IET London: Savoy Place. For more information, visit www.theiet.org/kelvin

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Robert Beahan
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Email: rbeahan@theiet.org

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