WE Moerner

Ithaca, N.Y. — Even before William L. Moerner won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday, he was being held up as an example for graduate students in Ithaca.

“In fact, all his notebooks, I ended up having them bound so I could show the other graduate students, as time went on, how to do their research,” said emeritus professor A.J. Sievers, who taught Moerner when Moerner was pursuing his Ph.D.

Professor Sievers said Moerner was a meticulous and systematic student at Cornell, but was also involved beyond the research lab.

WE Moerner

“He was the lead actor in the HMS Pinafore at Cornell, one of his years there,” Sievers said. “He was a great singer. And he was involved in lots of things like that outside of research.”

Sievers also said in a university statement that he remembers Moerner visiting the Cornell University Library to find its longest thesis, discovering it to be 40 pages longer than what Moerner had written to that point.

“So he stopped right there,” Sievers said in the statement. “He didn’t want to be the person with the longest thesis in the library.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences named Moerner and fellow Cornell graduate Eric Betzig as recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2014. They are part of the three-member team recognized for improving the resolution of optical microscopes.

Moerner earned his master’s in physics from Cornell in 1978 and his Ph.D. in 1982. Betzig graduated with his master’s in Applied & Engineering Physics in 1985, and his Ph.D. in 1988.

Moerner, Betzig and German scientist Stefan W. Hell are credited with developing super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, a nanoscopy technique that can be used to visualize the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells. Uses for this technology include seeing how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain and tracking proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases.

Their research has pushed the light microscope past a longstanding diffraction limit, Warren Zipfel, Cornell associate professor of biomedical engineering, said in the Cornell Chronicle.

Moerner was born at Parks Air Force Base in Pleasanton, Calif., in 1953, but grew up in Texas. He is currently a professor at Stanford University’s department of chemistry.
According to Stanford, Moerner almost missed getting the news because he was in Recife, Brazil, for a conference at the time of the announcement.

Speaking in a March 2014 interview with the American Chemical Society, Moerner said he remembers making a number of small fires in the chemistry “club house” in his backyard when he was growing up. He added that his mother’s words and the mystery of molecule behavior in complex environments were a constant source of inspiration to him.

Betzig is currently a group leader at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. According to the HHMI website, Betzig worked from an office in his Michigan cottage until he joined the institute in October, 2005. He is also the 1993 recipient of the National Academy of Sciences Award for Initiatives in Research.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.