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Nobel Laureate Eric Betzig to deliver lecture on campus

April 1, 2016

Nobel laureate Eric Betzig

Nobel laureate Eric Betzig
Nobel laureate Eric Betzig

Eric Betzig will deliver the spring 2016 Hugh and Ethel Kelly Lecture at 10:30 a.m. April 19 in the Latham Ballroom at the Inn at Virginia Tech., 901 Prices Fork Rd., Blacksburg, Virginia.

His talk, “Imaging Life at High Spatiotemporal Resolution,” will be open to all members of the campus community.

Betzig, along with Stefan Hell and William Moerner, won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2014 for super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, which allows scientists to take images of cells with unprecedented detail.

Light microscopes are invaluable for viewing dynamic processes in living cells without damaging them, but they’re not precise enough to capture images of individual molecules like proteins.

Electron microscopes can resolve these nanoscale structures, but can’t be used on living cells. Super-resolved fluorescence microscopy uses fluorescent proteins whose glow can be switched on and off to bring optical microscopy into the nanodimension — and bring researchers closer to being able to track single molecules during processes like cell division and nerve signaling.

“It is an incredible honor to have a visionary like Eric Betzig as our Kelly lecturer this spring,” said Roop Mahajan, the executive director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and Lewis A. Hester Chair in engineering.

“He has revolutionized the field of biological imaging, and we expect that his visit will have an energizing impact, sparking conversation and inspiring new research.”

Betzig’s Nobel research grew out of his doctoral work at Cornell University on near-field optical microscopy, the first method to break the “diffraction barrier” and allow an optical microscope to image something smaller than half the wavelength of the light the microscope used. He and his colleagues were working on modifying the technique for use in high-resolution biological imaging.

After finishing his doctorate in 1988, Betzig, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Technology, continued his microscopy research as a principal investigator at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories.

By 1993, he had recorded the first super-resolution fluorescence images of cells and the first images of single molecules at ambient temperature — both major breakthroughs.

But technical limitations still stood in the way of achieving single-molecule resolution in living cells, and, frustrated, Betzig left Bell Labs in 1994 and abandoned his research for several years.

He was inspired to return to microscopy when he read about the recently-discovered ability to make cell structures glow using a jellyfish molecule called green fluorescent protein (an achievement which itself won the Nobel Prize in 2008). He suspected that harnessing the protein’s luminescence could be the key to higher resolution.

When he learned that it was possible to use light to turn this fluorescence on and off, Betzig, along with Bell Labs colleague Harald Hess, developed a technique called photoactivated localization microscopy.

By switching on a handful of fluorescent molecules at a time, and combining thousands of separate frames with just a few glowing molecules each, Betzig and Hess were able to build up a composite image with single-molecule resolution.

For this technique, Betzig won the Nobel Prize in 2014, along with Moerner, who had developed the method for switching fluorescence on and off, and Stefan Hell, who devised a similar method using lasers.

Since 2005, Betzig has been
 a group leader at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he continues to develop new fast, high-resolution techniques that can image living cells without damaging them.

The Kelly Gift to the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and the College of Engineering allowed the two organizations to establish the Hugh and Ethel Kelly Lecture Series in 2013.

This distinguished speaker series honors Hugh Kelly’s technical accomplishments, and the Kellys’ support of Virginia Tech. Kelly earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Virginia Tech and, like Betzig, worked as a researcher at Bell Labs, where he  played key roles in groundbreaking projects including the 1962 launch of the Telstar communications satellite. Ethel Kelly generously supported Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering as a way of honoring her husband’s legacy.

Kelly Hall, which houses the headquarters of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, is also named in honor of the couple.

Nobel Laureate and former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu presented the inaugural lecture, “How to Create a Bell Labs 2.0 in Today’s Realities,” in October 2013.

Last fall’s Kelly lecture was given by Wayne Clough, Secretary Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and the former president of Georgia Tech, who spoke on “Climate Change: Engineering reality into the debate.”

The lecture series honors the Kellys by bringing eminent and creative individuals to campus to educate and inspire the Virginia Tech community.

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact Eleanor Nelsen at (540) 231-2761 or email during regular business hours at least 10 days prior to the event.    

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.