"Very refreshing, very collaborative"

Professor Henry N. Chapman

Professor Chapman, congratulations on winning the prestigious Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. What does the award mean to you and what are your plans for the 2.5 million euros you won?

Thank you very much, it really is a great honour which means a lot to me. This has made me feel much more part of the German academic community than ever before. The level of science and research in this country is exceedingly high, and so it’s a great thrill to be recognized in this way by a community that I highly respect. I have several plans for how to use the prize money to overcome the great challenge of determining the molecular structures of proteins that cannot be crystallized by implementing a form of holography using X-ray lasers. I also would like to update the methods of X-ray crystallography, which have been going strong for almost 100 years, by introducing to this field new concepts we’ve developed in imaging and sensing. My dream is to enable the determination of just about any protein.

What fascinates you about your scientific discipline?

I mainly think of my field as imaging science, which has a wonderfully rich history in the development of the microscope – by people like Ernst Abbe in Jena and Frederik Zernike in the Netherlands – and the lensless methods of crystallography which originated with Max von Laue and the Australian William Lawrence Bragg. There have been so many inventions and intellectual breakthroughs over the last century, yet the field is more vibrant than ever before. I especially like the way in which a wavefield encodes information about an object, giving rise to beautiful patterns that provide wonderfully complex mathematical puzzles to solve. Now that we’re applying these techniques to biological objects such as proteins and viruses I’ve become quite intrigued about biology.

In 2007 you decided to move to Germany. What were the most important reasons?

I was not considering moving to Germany, but I was invited to DESY where I was presented with an idea for a new centre of cooperation between DESY, the Max Planck Society and the University of Hamburg that would bring together forefront science groups which could take advantage of new disruptive technologies such as X-ray free-electron lasers. It was the commitment to long-term support, together with academic freedom at a level that could not be matched anywhere else – even in the US – which really attracted me here. But it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t also been a perfect fit for my wife, Saša Bajt, who started up an X-ray optics lab at DESY.

What do you like about researching, working and living in Germany?

The stability of support is very refreshing. It allows you to make long-term plans, increase your ambitions and focus on science. German science is also very collaborative, which is something I like. This is not only through structures like Collaborative Research Centres (a coordinated funding programme organized by the German Research Foundation) and Excellence Clusters, as I have also found making connections to be very easy. Hamburg is a very nice city to live and work. People are quite open-minded and tolerant. We’re surrounded by green, the air is clean, and yet we have the advantages of city living. It has been a great place for our daughter to grow up, and it’s been fun as a family to explore Europe in our spare time.

Professor Chapman, thank you very much for this interview.


About Professor Chapman:
The subjects of his research are absolutely tiny yet the tools he uses to study them are huge. Professor Henry N. Chapman uses microscopes which are 315 metres long to measure biological objects such as proteins. In the spring of 2015, the German Research Foundation (DFG) awarded him one of eight Leibniz Prizes for his groundbreaking research findings in X-ray physics and biological physics. The Leibniz Prize is one of Germany’s highest-endowed research prizes. Born in the UK in 1967, Professor Chapman moved to the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg in 2007 and became the founding director of the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL), a joint establishment of the University of Hamburg, the Max Planck Society and the DESY.

Further information:

  • Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY): www.desy.de
  • Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL): www.cfel.de