Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell: “It was a long struggle to get my idea accepted”

Chemistry Professor Stefan Hell

When Stefan Hell’s telephone rang in October 2014, at first he thought it was a joke. But only a short time later, the physicist was besieged by the international press and then received written notification: he had been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with American scientists Eric Betzig and William Moerner. By developing super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, the three scientists have opened up new ways to study the tiniest of objects. It was long accepted wisdom that optical microscopes are fundamentally unable to resolve objects smaller than 200 nanometres (millionths of a millimetre). The 52-year-old physicist Stefan Hell was the first person to find a way to radically break through this limit. Hell studied in Heidelberg and is now Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.

Professor Hell, you received a Nobel Prize in 2014 for your discovery, so-called Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscopy. Why is your discovery so relevant, not only for the research community but also for humankind?

The method and the techniques derived from it enable us to discern very fine details with a light microscope – it had previously been impossible to visualise such details. This discovery is of such scientific relevance because light microscopy is the only microscopic technique that enables us to look inside a living cell and identify proteins very specifically. And that in turn is important because it enables us to comprehend the cell’s physiology, i.e. its molecular interactions. That is essential to understanding how diseases work. Because, ultimately, every disease – whether a viral infection or cancer – is a malfunction in cells.

You studied in Heidelberg and are now Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. Why did you decide to pursue a scientific career in Germany?

When I opted for a career in science, I was less concerned with my career prospects or making specific plans in this direction. I was inspired by the idea of solving a century-old problem. I would have gone wherever I was offered the chance to improve light microscopy. I studied in Heidelberg, and while doing my PhD there I realised what great potential my research specialty offered. But initially I was unable to further pursue my idea in Germany. That’s why I went to Finland, where I had a decisive concrete idea. The opportunity to put my idea into practice was then presented to me in 1997 by the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. And so I returned to Germany. The Max Planck Society (MPS) offers excellent resources to researchers working at its institutes. It is in the same league as the top research institutions worldwide – on a par with the Universities of Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. Ultimately, it was the outstanding resources offered by MPS that kept me in Germany.

What advice do you give to young researchers at your institute? What do they need to consider when embarking on a scientific career in Germany? What extraordinary opportunities do they have?

My most important piece of advice is always this: young people should do what they enjoy doing. Because if they pursue an idea they are really enthusiastic about, they will be able to muster the energy and develop the creativity needed to solve scientific problems. There are now plenty of organisations and institutional arrangements in Germany that provide young people with the resources they need to pursue their ideas. MPS, which has a very strong international orientation, has created an efficient infrastructure, including the so-called Max Planck Research Groups, to help young people with original ideas put them into practice. At MPS, the focus is always on the person of the researcher. Other German research organisations have established similar programmes. Some of them are supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Young people from abroad in particular should take advantage of these opportunities.

Once a year, dozens of Nobel Laureates convene in Lindau to meet the next generation of leading scientists: undergraduates, PhD students and postdoc researchers from all over the world. In 2015, you attended the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Why was it important to you to participate in this event? And what is your overall assessment of it?

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is an excellent opportunity for young people to make the personal acquaintance of Nobel Prize winners who have made important contributions to science, and learn about their lives and careers. Of course, I also talked to my fellow Nobel Laureates and discovered that for many of the well-known scientists it was a long struggle to get their ideas accepted and gain recognition. In my own case, the struggle was a very tough one. Such meetings are very important because they show that for young people with ideas they firmly believe in, there are also opportunities to put them to use and make important contributions. Of course, even young researchers should be aware of the real potential of their ideas and be able to distinguish between promising and less promising projects. All the same, one shouldn’t simply assume that the research community will immediately greet with enthusiasm or support a highly promising idea. For many of my fellow Nobel Laureates, realising their projects involved a long struggle. That’s why I attended the meeting in Lindau. It was important to me to encourage young people to tackle fundamental problems, to reach for the stars in the research universe and view science not just as a way to promote one’s career and earn a living. There are other occupations better suited to that. In Germany, at any rate, an infrastructure has been put in place to provide young people with the relevant opportunities and support. That may possibly result in a scientific breakthrough – and sometimes even in a Nobel Prize.

Professor Hell, thank you very much for the interview.

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