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W. E. Moerner (Stanford University)

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About this episode

#38 — W. E. Moerner of Stanford University is a pioneer in the field of super-resolution imaging for cell biology. Tune in as W. E. joins Peter O’Toole and discover more about the work that led to W. E. sharing the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

We’ll hear why interdisciplinarity is so important in science, why W. E. has had to overcome his tendency to procrastinate, and how a love for Gilbert and Sullivan music led to him meeting his wife. We’ll also learn how the backyard “Clubhouse” that W. E. built with his father sparked a lifelong love of science and find out what it was like moving into academia after many years in industry. Listen now to hear more!

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This is an automated transcript and may not be 100% accurate.

Intro/Outro (00:00:02):
Welcome to The Microscopists, a Bitesize Bio podcast hosted by Peter O’Toole, sponsored by Zeiss Microscopy. Today on The Microscopists.

Peter O’Toole (00:00:14):
Welcome to this episode of The Microscopists and I’m joined by W.E Moerner of Stanford University and we discuss interdisciplinary,

W. E. Moerner (00:00:23):
You know I’m hard to, to put in a box that’s that’s certainly I’m a card carrying chemist

Peter O’Toole (00:00:31):
Discovering jumping molecules.

W. E. Moerner (00:00:33):
So these, these jumping molecules, that was a truly exciting time because that was a total surprise. The

Peter O’Toole (00:00:39):
Importance of music, W.E’s life

W. E. Moerner (00:00:42):
Singing, Gilbert and Sullivan. And that connection is actually how I met my wife

Peter O’Toole (00:00:47):
And being a procrastinator,

W. E. Moerner (00:00:49):
My thesis the papers that came outta my thesis were in fit. I take several years after I left Cornell to actually get them published

Peter O’Toole (00:00:56):
All in this episode of The Microscopists. Hi, welcome to this episode of The Microscopists. I’m Peter O’Toole from the University of York and today I’m joined by W. E. Moerner, from Stanford at UC San Diego. How are you today?

W. E. Moerner (00:01:21):
I’m wonderful. Thank you very much. Great to see you, Pete. Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (00:01:25):
And thank you for taking to join me today. I’ve gotta say slightly, I’m gonna start slightly off tack. I’m looking behind you and I can see a ton of books. So are they all factual or are they fictional or a mix

W. E. Moerner (00:01:40):
Uh these are really all factual. They, they are covering sort of, of the many fields that I’ve been involved in elsewhere. We have some fictional books and or things like that, or historical fiction books in the house. So this is, this is my home collection of these books. There’s a similar collection in my office at work,

Peter O’Toole (00:02:03):
Actually, you know, I, I, this, this is going in a different direction to normal. I believe this background picture. I just put in zoom, if you are listening, this is a W.E. In his office at work. And one of my quickfire questions is often, are you a messy or a tidy person?

W. E. Moerner (00:02:19):
Ah, So I would say that this particular picture, if you look closely, you actually will see a little post it’s along the edge of the, of the bookcase, right along the lower edge of the books. Okay. Yeah. And those post-its actually provide the dividers and the sections in which the books are organized. So this, it turns out to be very organized in a certain way. And in the sense that I can find things pretty well in this office. So that’s, that’s the sort of aspect of, of this sort of, if you like cluttery mess that that makes it a little bit redeeming for me.

Peter O’Toole (00:02:57):
So it’s an organized mess. It’s not a mess. It’s not a tidy, it’s not a mess. It’s an organized, organized, I dunno what, I better be careful what I say, but it’s quite good actually having the virtual background, having your library at home merging into your library, pretty much at work and just know many books there are, It’s an insane amount. So when you said you had some fictional books elsewhere, what sort of fiction are you into?

W. E. Moerner (00:03:25):
Well actually historical fiction you know, books like The Swerve. I I’ve enjoyed very minor much because it’s talking about those, those early days and the, the monks that preserved sort of the early history of the Greeks. And so on to, through, through the middle ages, things like that, I enjoy that the most. OK.

Peter O’Toole (00:03:46):
So that, that was a complete digression to how we usually start. So I, I guess from my perspective, your most well known most famous for super resolution work and your Nobel prize in chemistry back in 2014 when you got that Nobel prize for the recognition of your tremendous work before that, did it make a change to how you perceived work after than before?

W. E. Moerner (00:04:13):
Yeah, it’s a really good question. There’s there’s some ways in which there were changes in some ways in which there, there weren’t I actually continued and want to continue and have continued doing research with my students and postdocs and so on because I enjoy working with them. I enjoy the challenges of the new things that haven’t been done and, and all of that. But of course the Nobel prize made a huge change in, in other aspects of, of, of my work, just because of, of a bunch of sort of side effects, if you like, there’s people who overly revere the Nobel laureates and okay. And, and therefore, and, and invite them to come to meetings and so forth just to have a Nobel Laureate show up. They don’t care what you say and you know, that kind of thing. So there’s, there’s been a big mixture of trying to balance those, those sorts of things with, with my desire to sort of continue science.

Peter O’Toole (00:05:15):
Okay. So where, what got, what got you into science? Let’s go back. What got you into science to start with in fact, no. Do you know what, let’s go back a bit further when you were the age of 10 around that age, what did you want to be when you grew up?

W. E. Moerner (00:05:29):
Well, at that time I was very excited about lots of things, technical because my father had been trained in, in electronics in the service. And so I had some electronic books to read from him. Also he was a chemist when his degree was in chemistry. So I had a chemistry set in the backyard in, in a, in a metal building that, that, that I, I called the shed or something like that or the Playhouse or the, or the clubhouse, that’s it, the clubhouse. And I could go out there and, you know do chemistry experiments or do electronics experiments. So I, I was just at a time just sort of soaking up science and, and then really enjoying all aspects of mathematics and all of that as well. So this, I think came mostly from genes, but also from the times which depended upon the, the world sort of reacting the, to Sputnik and things like that. As a, as a driver in the in the United States to encourage young people, to to go into science. So my parents were encouraging me strongly to go into science or engineering or, or something like that.

Peter O’Toole (00:06:40):
So your Nobel prizes in chemistry, but would you ever class yourself as a chemist?

W. E. Moerner (00:06:46):
You know I’m hard to, to put in a box that’s that’s certainly I’m a card carrying chemist. Okay. I I’ve been a member of the American chemical society for you years, decades. I teach general chemistry to students and, and so on. And, but in in fact my career has had an evolution moving through many fields of science starting with engineering, adding physics and mathematics, and all of my primary degrees are actually in physics and so on. And then in my career in industry there was a lot of physical chemistry added and which I enjoyed tremendously and, and then much more chemistry. And now, now biology and so on. So I I’m really a person who enjoys all of these.

Peter O’Toole (00:07:37):
Do you have a favorite, what, what do you have a favorite area of science, David, if you could just concentrate on just one area or do you love that multidisciplinary approach to it?

W. E. Moerner (00:07:49):
Well, that’s a, that’s an interesting question. What I think I enjoy most is, is methods. What I enjoy most is applying engineering, physics and chemistry to make something happen something new happen and to analyze, to calculate what’s the best signal. How can you detect a single molecule? I mean, that was sort of their big driver at the beginning, how, how to detect that single molecule, which is a combination of several of these fields. And I still enjoy that because every time we improve our detection, then we measure something more and, and the applications to biology right now, of course, are the most interesting to me because there’s such a world of problems that, that need to be explored that all of which have heterogene and all of which have different behaviors. That can be a little better if you observe single molecules one by one. So

Peter O’Toole (00:08:45):
It’s interesting that all that multidisciplinary, the, the ability that, that flexibility to do quite broad research I think academia is fairly unique in the ability to enable that freedom. I, I, I did, I, I, I did actually do some background research which I don’t always do. But I noticed that you work for IBM for a while.

W. E. Moerner (00:09:07):

Peter O’Toole (00:09:09):
Did that have the same freedom to operate?

W. E. Moerner (00:09:10):
Well, I actually thinks that it’s the opposite. If we, if we go, go through what you just said a little bit and think more about it academia has historically been dominated by what, what people often call pillars of excellence. So there’ll be a professor who doesn’t collaborate with anyone and has a huge crew of people working around them. And, and doesn’t learn a lot about what’s happening across this street or in the other buildings. And so on. That’s, that’s kind of the way it’s been historically. Now this of course has changed a lot recently. There’s a lot more multidisciplinary work in many universities now. The comparison to the corporate research laboratory is, is an interesting one because I was at IBM research and at one of those great industrial research laboratories of that time where you could per pursue basic research, but and rather than just applications to, to products. Okay. And so that, that Bell laboratories is another example. And there’s more examples that of that type, but they’ve gone smaller or changed in, in more recent years because there’s been more competition pushing companies more toward just worrying about trying to get the products out, in any case, the, the aspect of this experience that relates to your question is we often were there trying to work on a, a, a big problem, let’s say optical storage. I was heavily involved with optical storage, and this was going to be by any of multiple techniques, not just, you know, pits and a CD, but actually writing bits into molecules absorptions okay at low temperatures something called spectral hole burning and, and this spectral hole burning idea was intensely focused on the properties of molecules of absorbing light. And so I had a lot of opportunity to study that, but we collaborated with engineers who, who wanted to figure out will this ever work, will it be practical? What will be the cost for all of this, and with chemists who were making the molecules that enabled this hole burning storage. So physicists chemists engineers were actually at IBM research all working together. So there was very few barriers between departments because of this focus on getting the project to move forward and learning whatever you needed to do, push the project forward. So it’s a fascinating thing. And I I’d sort of view myself as bringing that kind of viewpoint, you know, to to academia as one of the people who brings it to academia. And

Peter O’Toole (00:11:49):
You, as you rightly say that mindset of that pillar of excess one, one group being very insular and being very big within themselves is I think hopefully broken down almost, not completely. I, I, I’m still aware there’s these singular pillars within different institutes around the world, but mostly most big groups are team players now.

W. E. Moerner (00:12:14):
That’s true, but there’s still people that say, are, are you a chemist or a physicist, you know, and, and I have to say both, and we’re doing biology and using engineering. So , so, you know there, there are some people who kind of push this pretty far,

Peter O’Toole (00:12:30):
Well, I think there’s an advantage, but once the group, the pillar becomes team playing, it can associate, it can work with chemists, physicists, biologists to really optimize and get best outta science and speed science up. Right. I think is important as well.

W. E. Moerner (00:12:46):
Uh absolutely true.

Peter O’Toole (00:12:48):
So that must have changed a lot. You, you say you brought that culture in or help certainly develop that culture. Did you meet much resistance from certain groups?

W. E. Moerner (00:12:59):
Well, a little bit. I, I would say that some people historically might have said oh, well, we, maybe we can’t hire this person because he’s not really a chemist. Let’s say, and others have to explain, well how, how can this person be in a chemistry department and, and so forth. So that, that battle was one of course, but, you know, it might not have been one 10 years ago, but 10 years before I arrived. Yep.

Peter O’Toole (00:13:24):
So on a completely different note, do you remember your first microscope?

W. E. Moerner (00:13:30):
Do I remember my first microscope? Well if you allow me there certainly have to have been some microscopes in high school when, when we looked at samples and looked at a frog dissection or whatever, cuz you have you take, we take biology, course. We take a chemistry course. We take a physics course. Yeah. And so that, that it is certainly there, but very dim in the memory because there’s, it’s hard to, to remember things that are, that are that far back the, the, a more relevant comment about that is it’s important to remember that all of my entry into this whole field started with spectroscopy. So the, the variable that you change is more frequency or wavelength and that’s an axis on which you plot things okay. As, as, as opposed to a spatial access. So which is more commonly the way microscope is viewed as having spatial axis, okay. X and Y and Z or whatever. And so the, the microscope that’s worth mentioning perhaps in terms of sort of a more important microscope was when we were looking at single molecules at low temperatures at IBM research. Okay. we started making hybrid images that had frequency and space. So it was essentially a conf focal microscope, cuz it was one position, but you at a time until you move it across the sample and then we also were changing the other variable. Okay. the frequency axis and that can turn into a two dimensional plot. That’s a hybrid plot. Okay. So that, that’s a pretty important microscope cuz it was really one of the first times that we scanned over the shape of the single molecule spot which is really the wide spread function of the system.

Peter O’Toole (00:15:26):
So, so exciting times and yeah, so I guess the first research grade microscope at that point, I, I actually have in my office, my first microscopy lesson at university that wrote down, actually I don’t ask me how I just opened a book that I was throwing away, university notes and it, it was there. I just opened it on that page. I thought, ah, great. I’ve gotta take this out and just put it on the wall and just realized how bad I was at microscopy or even how much I hated microscopy back then. Wonderful quality. The microscopes are not that great. And then obviously the world’s got a lot better and microscopes have got lot a lot, a lot, lot better. So actually you sent some other pictures. So this is obviously dating back and what, so this is definitely your chemistry side of things. So let’s describe who we’ve got here and what you’re looking at.

W. E. Moerner (00:16:16):
Well, that’s actually my, my physics PhD. Okay. there’s, there’s a professor Al Severs. Okay. with a beard and Andrew Chraplyvy a an older graduate student a year older than me, who is a collaborator on, on my research work and what I’m holding if you, if you can see it down at the bottom is a model that shows the perinate ion, the REO four minus ion the perinate ion which we had doped into a crystal of an Alkali Haylight such as potassium iodide. So the potassium iodide structure is shown there. Some of the, some of the atoms of the potassium iodide structure is shown with a tetrahedron REO four molecule in the middle of it. So it’s, it’s a really interesting sort of juxtaposition that you bring up here because that research you might call it at the time chemical physics because it was a molecule being studied by physicists. There actually are some physicists even as famous as Art Schawlow who said if, if if a system has more, more than two atoms than its chemistry, so it’s not physics. But here we were physicists studying this perinate ion and it’s infrared properties, it’s infrared vibrational mode absorptions in, in that solid, which was like a host holding that perinate ion, all of this at low temperatures. So that’s sort of an interesting juxtaposition of physics and chemistry and so forth, you know, helped me in sort of my transition toward more chemistry if you like, but we were very interested in the properties of how that behaved at low temperatures, how it would, how it would change when you radiated with light, how it would rotate inside the crystal change to a different configuration, make the, make what we call the spectral hole and, and those kinds of optically induced transformations you see have, have, have permeated my career.

Peter O’Toole (00:18:29):
Yeah. I, I, what was really great is your passion talking about that? It, it seemed to bring back actually quite a lot of excitement. So what’s been the most fun time of your career.

W. E. Moerner (00:18:42):
I would say the most fun time was when we were beginning to study these these single molecules at, at IBM with, with my postdoc Pat Ambrose, and the experiment was looking at the peneseen molecule in a crystal of pero teifeninon. I mean, that was the first system where we could see a single molecule and one afternoon by the way, at the, at the research laboratory there, there’s the research room the laboratory, and then right across the hall is, is my office. So I could go into the laboratory or in and out or whatever, anytime I needed but one day so, so you have to imagine what’s going on. If, as we’re, we’re scanning the frequency of the laser, then this was so-called exaltation spectrum. When the frequency of the laser reached the resonance frequency of the molecule, the optical absorption frequency of the molecule, that’s at 500 terra hertz, by the way, or 593 nanometers. Okay. the fluorescence would increase and then you would detect more signal and then as you tune further, it goes down again. So this is well known as you might expect, but this is in the, the frequency domain very much like tuning your radio, you know, far away from any any city. And then you can very, mostly noise. And then finally, when you get just to the right frequency, you hear the, the signal from a particular station. So that’s the molecule, you know coming into residence and giving us fluorescence. Okay, great. So we were studying those line widths and all this business. Right. But, but Pat one afternoon came running into my office and he said, the molecules are jumping around. They’re, they’re moving from one frequency to another, they’re moving around. And this was really exciting to us because we’re, we’re at 1.2 degrees kelvin, okay. In a crystal, you know, we didn’t really expect to see a lot of big dynamics, but the molecules would actually, their resonance frequency would move from one frequency to another, to another, to another, to another, back and so on. So this turned out to be, you know, the beginnings of blinking, okay. That molecules would be in resonance or out of resonance and their local environment would be changed by the optical exudation, which would then cause their resonance frequent and teach a shift. So the optical exudation was changing their local environment, molecules would shift back and forth. So these, these jumping molecules, that was a truly exciting time because that was a total surprise. It was one of these things that turned out to be, well, you could might have said that you could predict it. I mean, the theorists had for a long time in saying that molecules, you know, can move around in frequency space in cryon in in glasses and in systems that have sort of more loose dynamics, let’s call it. Because lines would broaden, well, these spectral holes would broaden with time, which was a suggestion that the molecules were moving around, but here we saw these digital jump from one frequency to another and in the crystal, which really really surprised us. That was very exciting.

Peter O’Toole (00:21:54):
So, and I, I, I very good explanation of it. Did you realize at the time exactly what that meant when you saw that they were jumping about,

W. E. Moerner (00:22:03):
Well we, we sort of quickly thought that, well, maybe this is spectral diffusion may, maybe this is a direct observation of spectral diffusion. That sort of had been described by theorists previously for glasses. But having it happen in sort of a discontinuous way was, was, was a, a wonderful surprise. And then the, grist of theorists who, who then studied this in more detailed, like Jim Skinner later on.

Peter O’Toole (00:22:37):
So from all that, all the research, obviously, I, I, I like, I like this picture cause it is, I got you. This is your Nobel, right. Also your, I presume your wife and your son.

W. E. Moerner (00:22:51):
That’s right. That’s, that’s my wonderful wife, Sharon, my son, Daniel. And we’re holding the, the medal, the Nobel medal, but the other beautiful thing is the so-called diploma. And that painting there is, is a, an original drawn just for my prize. Each Nobel prize has a diploma like this associated with it. So this was of course a great moment after the award ceremony in Stockholm.

Peter O’Toole (00:23:23):
And so obviously your wife and son must have been very proud. What, what do you do in your spare time with them? I presume you have spare time.

W. E. Moerner (00:23:32):
Yes. Well since the prize there’s actually been less spare time. But one of the, one of the spare time things that, that we spent a lot of time on historically was music singing and music. And so I, I actually met my wife through through having fun with singing. Our son had a lot of fun with singing in high school as well. And we were, it turned that was something that you may I think recognize more and in the, in the UK it was Gilbert and Sullivan singing Gilbert and Sullivan. So it singing Gilbert and Sullivan, and that connection is actually how I met my wife. So a very nice sort of connection occurred that through there, she, she comes from a family of, of very talented people and, and singers and performers her, her father and mother were the director and producer and partial founder of the Gilbert and Sullivan society of San Jose. And so they, they put on you know, over the years, you know, 20, 20 to 40 or whatever productions and several, several operators were done every year. And, and so I, I picked this up actually in college because I had a very close friend Bert Stewart who got me involved with listening to Gilbert and Sullivan along with playing instruments clavichords. And he would, he would play the flu, I’d play the clavichord and, and things like that. And eventually I got involved in, in Gilbert and Sullivan listening to it a lot in college. And then in graduate school, when I’m supposed to be getting a PhD in the middle of that, I decided I’m gonna go try out for the lead of HMS Pinafore out of the blue. And that was something that I was encouraged to do by, by a wonderful postdoc Don Trotter, who said, you gotta try, go ahead and try out right. And so forth. So I, I went there and I sang for, you know, the captain and I got the role of Sir Joseph Porter, Knight, commander of the Bath KCB. And so and in grad school, I performed that that role which was, which was great fun, but of course it takes too much time to do that. I had to stop after just one, one show, get back to working on my PhD, but that is why when I moved out here to IBM in, in California I easily decided to go try out for roles at the Gilbert and Sullivan society of San Jose, where I, where I met my wife and so on. And that that’s the story after that.

Peter O’Toole (00:26:39):
And this is the picture of your wedding.

W. E. Moerner (00:26:42):
Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. You hold out some good ones. Sorry.

Peter O’Toole (00:26:47):
How young were you when you married?

W. E. Moerner (00:26:50):
I was, I was 30. Okay.

New Speaker (00:26:53):
I’m glad you got that right otherwise you’d have been in trouble when your wife listen this back. That would’ve been just dreadful at that point.

W. E. Moerner (00:27:01):
Yeah. you’re. You’re testing my memory. Okay. Uh as I get older and older, you know, memory, those specific sort of things, but so, so you see in that picture on next to me are her father and mother, the Gilbert and Sullivan experts. Of course, they’re both physicians and had stunning careers and then my, my father and, and stepmother beyond that. And then on the other side of my wife, Sharon is her sister and you know and brother, and then my very close friend Bert is the very tall person with his wife, Barbara. So you know, this it’s quite a family picture here, but the, the amazing thing about the, the, the Stein family that’s my wife’s fam family, is that all of them would get involved in these Gilbert and Sullivan shows. So all, all of them would, would perform in some way or another, or be involved with the lights or be involved with the stage, or be involved with being a producer or being involved with, you know, and costumes and building sets and so on. So it’s, it was, it was a great fun activity.

Peter O’Toole (00:28:18):
So I was gonna ask you if you starred anything, but obviously you did get roles. You described that quite nicely. You have had roles in that, do you still do it.

W. E. Moerner (00:28:27):
So what, what happened is in terms of music being in a big show requires a lot of rehearsals and then requires full-time rehearsals, you know, the week before the performances starts. So so-called hell week. We I just wasn’t able to dedicate that much time given, given all of my research commitments and so on. So I, I shifted more to singing with large singing groups. They mostly sing classical works. And the so a San Jose symphonic choir skull Cantor. So these, all these different singing groups have been, I’ve been a member of over the years. The, the one that I was involved in for a good number of years was the Stanford the symphonic choir which, which would sing a lot of a large Oratorio’s and things like that, which I enjoyed tremendously. Uh but since the prize, I haven’t had time to do that. The thing about the voice that’s particularly nice is that you don’t have to rehearse a lot. You do have to go to rehearsals, but you don’t have to sort of beat on it every day. Like you, like I had to do with, let’s say, when I played the bassoon in high school, or when I play the clarinet or those sorts of instruments, you, you really have to practice and practice and practice, you know, all the time. But, but, but singing is, is more a natural for me and you carry the instrument around with you and so on. So it’s, it’s I’ll, I’ll get back to it as soon as I possibly can.

Peter O’Toole (00:29:59):
So think about getting back things on a more serious note, whenever your career, do you think, have you found most challenging during your career?

W. E. Moerner (00:30:09):
One of the challenges that I, I found to be something that I spent a lot of time thinking about was when I decided to change careers, when I decided to make the, the big transition from, from IBM to academia this, this was difficult at the time because IBM research was a place where you sort of stayed there for life was historically and one of the things that was going on during the, the early nineties was this, this large change in the computer industry the emergence of the personal computer changed the landscape tremendously and affected IBM. So there were, there was one year where there was $8 billion in losses at IBM. And this this sort of changed the research division from a place where there were a large number of people working on basic science or important things for the company to fewer people working on basic science. So I felt the com the, the environment changing I, my opportunities sort of reducing somewhat, we had, we had detected single molecules which a tremendous excitement in the, in for me scientifically and for all the people working in that area. But IBM actually, wasn’t so interested in that there, there were more interested in STEM and moving atoms around things like that on the cert. And so I had to make this choice to switch to the academic environment with, with, with its exciting aspects, but also challenges. There’s, you have to wear wear many, many hats at, at, at the, in academia, you have to get grants, you have to, to write proposals, you, and you have to of course have mentor many graduate students and postdocs and be on committees and teach and all of that stuff all, all together, all at the same time. So it’s actually been really exciting and, and, and a challenge, but I enjoy the challenge. I mean, the challenge was, was something that I, I think broadened me and of, of course the, the contact with many young people in academia has been spectacular. And the freedom was higher in, in, in academia, the freedom to explore whatever science I can get funded. So I could then switch to look at biological systems, which I wasn’t able really to do at at IBM.

Peter O’Toole (00:32:50):
So go, so, so now you’re at this point to your career if you could research anything, forget the history, forget what, what you, what you’ve majored in, what would you go on to do? What would you like to see researching? What would you like to succeed in?

W. E. Moerner (00:33:07):
So you know, the current trends in in science, many of them move toward quantum effects and the power of quantum mechanics and its ability to provide special forms of computing and so on. Historically that’s been studied mostly by, by physicists again on small systems now on, on atoms some number of systems that involve defects and solids, and there’s not as much with molecules and there’s, there’s such power of molecules in, in the sense that there’s so many different structures that can be built and can be imagined and so on and so on. And we’ve actually shown, you know, that molecules have power can be used for, you know, imaging beyond the fraction limit and all sorts of things. And, and so having new systems available where there, there can be sort of real entanglement in quantum systems and, and molecules for quantum mechanical applications. I think that would be exciting to be able to do that

Peter O’Toole (00:34:24):
What’s stopping you

W. E. Moerner (00:34:25):
You know one interesting thing about all of this, this field is having the right materials, you know, having, having the electronic states and the interactions with the nearby environment and so forth that, that maintain maintain the wonderful properties. Another way of saying that is molecules are highly quantum mechanical already, but typically for very, very short time scales before what’s called dephasing or de coherence set in and de coherence destroys these quantum effects. So one has to come up with scheme to, to get around that.

Peter O’Toole (00:35:04):
So it’s interesting. I, I, so obviously one of your fellow Nobel laureates at the same time was Eric Betzig And I remember Eric, and I asked about what he wanted to be as a child. And he said an astronaut. I asked him what he wanted to be when he got into science. He said an astronaut, but he’s not, and asked him what he would be today, if he, and he’d still be an astronauts, but actually you also have a passion for space. Right. There’s wonderful images of you, I guess, giant signal detecting telescope. Where are you exactly in this picture?

W. E. Moerner (00:35:40):
So I am at what’s, what’s called the, the shack of the Stanford amateur radio club up on the Hills behind the University. And this is the radio Telescope. One of the radio telescopes. This one is only about let’s say 10 meters in diameter. It’s, it’s not the huge radio telescope. There’s one of those also up there, but this is for the ham radio operators to use. So, so this one is one built in maintained by amateur radio operators. And so this is another one of my hobbies. The beautiful aspect of, of, of that kind of a dish is that it’s powerful enough to transmit a signal toward the moon and bounce it off the moon so that that signal can reflect from the moon and come back and be detected again by the same antenna, sometime a later, after the propagation time to the moon, this is so-called earth, moon, earth transmissions. And so this is one of the fun activities that the, the amateur radio operators get involved in. I’m not being irradiated, I’m off to the side of this of the antenna a little bit in this picture, but that night we couldn’t see the moon because of those clouds that you see out there. Nevertheless, we could bounce signals off of the moon. So one of the, one of the really fun things to do so amateur radio and the connection with radio connection with electronics and frequency domain. And all of that is, is, is throughout this particular hobby has become very digital now, but it’s still using all of these wavelengths and so forth that make radio work.

Peter O’Toole (00:37:28):
It’s a lovely interconnection and you, I, I have to show it cuz it’s just a wonderful image. So this is Hale Bopp, I think I, I remember Hail Bopp a comet. So is this your own image that you’ve taken?

W. E. Moerner (00:37:39):
Yes, this is my own image and there’s, there’s a little, there’s a great story behind it. So this, this, I believe the year was 1997. Yeah. 1997. We, our at that time I was at UC San Diego University of California at San Diego. Okay. In, in LA Jolla California down in Southern California, that’s where my first faculty position was. And I mean, those, that was the faculty who took the chance on this crazy guy okay. From, from from IBM. And the event there is a special one because there was also a lunar eclipse at the same night. And so I, my, my wife and son and I headed out to the Enza Bargo desert. So this is from the Enza Bargo desert which is inland from, from you know, the coastal cities down, down in Southern California, down San Diego area. Um and I was just having a ball because I, I had one camera aimed to the ocean. That’s the direction to the west of where the Hake Bopp comet is over the mountains there. And, and the other camera was headed to the, to the east because that’s where the lunar eclipse was occurring at at this moment. Okay. So to do this, we, we, we pulled our trailer out to the desert and set up for camping and so on. And our son was six years old the time. So they came out with me in the dark, see this crazy thing going on, but they quickly got tired of the, you know, sitting and watching and taking pictures and so on in the dark so that they went back in and to go to the, to the camp. And I stayed out there taking these pictures and it was really, really great because after a while I started hearing, I started hearing sort of a bunch of cayotes you know, making a huge racket, you know, very nearby eating something. Okay. So I quickly grabbed all of my, all of my, cameras and headed back in to the, to the campsite, but, got these great pictures of the time. A bit of a sad note, because this is this same night that, this crazy group of people, decided that there were aliens behind, the comet and, so on. And so they, these, this is the people that, drank the Kool-Aid, that, that particular night, unfortunately,

Peter O’Toole (00:40:13):
Wow. Keeping on a happier note. Fascinating. The, the, the interlink of yourself and Eric, both, both into astrophysics astronomy, and we’ve got in the UK, we’ve got a program called Sky at Night. I dunno if you’ve ever come across, it’s probably one, one of the oldest TV, still running TV programs. Mm-hmm and that’s presented by Chris Lintott now. Uh and actually he’s been really important now with the image analysis of biological images, especially in the cryo, in the,u3d electron microscopy community.

W. E. Moerner (00:40:47):

Peter O’Toole (00:40:48):
It’s those connections, spectral mixing. So Scott Fraser with all the spectral, again, it came from the astronomers of what they were using, bringing it the live science into the microscopy world. There’s fantastic crossovers. Mm-Hmm yeah. Also again, the multidisciplinary approach, the working with different partners, mm-hmm and sometimes the important of blue sky research. Cause you never know where it will lead.

W. E. Moerner (00:41:15):
And yes, that’s a, a really very, very important certain point. And I, I didn’t mention it earlier. I, but I would like to go back to that great day when we first saw that specal diffusion, that was a great example of this. Okay. Who people say, well, why do you wanna try to detect a single molecule? They were sort of making fun of me at that time. What good will it be? Who cares? So we don’t want to know what one molecule’s doing. We’d like to, oh, we care about the average value. And the, of course, the real reason for doing it is that you learn new things. You’re looking in a regime where you haven’t looked before and you may not know everything that you’re going to see. And, and that’s exactly, you know, what that example illustrates and, and the many other examples since. So this is, this is why a blue sky researcher pushing back boundaries, or looking in places where we haven’t looked before and things like that all still have great value. And, and, and I’d like to you know, connect with what you just said. You, you, you mentioned electron microscopy, you mentioned some of those things some of the newest things that we’ve been doing in my lab, there’s a great posdoc Pete Dahlberg that has been working with me. And he and I have built this system where we do both so single molecule imaging with fluorescence and electron microscopy at this on the same sample, precisely the same sample. So this has the effect of annotating, the electron microscope image with the single molecule positions, see annotation has been done for some time, but that’s by people full sort of identifying a membrane and then coloring it in or identifying ribosomes and coloring it in. But there’s thousands of proteins that you can’t identify with your eyes. You can’t see, you can’t recognize them. You don’t know which protein is, which so there’s thousands of hidden proteins and an electron microscope image. So with this single molecule experiment, we’ve, we light them up and, and we can say where they are to within, you know, the, the precision we get from the photons detected on the order of let’s say, 10 nanometers which is far, far better than doing that from the defraction limited regime and getting, providing information of, let’s say, where in a cell, what is the cellular location of a particular set of proteins this way? Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (00:43:38):
You know, after this, we’ll have a quick chat about that in more detail and see where that fits in. We’ve done some work with Lucy Collinson in the past which was driving down a very similar route. So it’d be interesting to cross some notes on that. Some quick fire questions. Mac or PC,

W. E. Moerner (00:43:59):

Peter O’Toole (00:44:00):
PC, early bird or night owl

W. E. Moerner (00:44:04):
Early bird,

Peter O’Toole (00:44:05):
Early bird. Do you have any bad habits,

W. E. Moerner (00:44:11):
Being a procrastinator?

Peter O’Toole (00:44:14):
Oh, you’ve done well to publish so if that’s your bad habit, how do you find so much? If that’s your bad

W. E. Moerner (00:44:21):
Habit, it’s been a fight. It’s been a battle my, my, my thesis the papers that came outta my thesis work did take several years after I left Cornell to actually get them published. But my, my wife helped a lot and sort of getting me to finish those papers. And she she’s actually helped me cure me of the procrastination business, but still okay. If there’s a, an interesting I’ll give you an example, th this last weekend there was a re enactment of the 1921 first transcontinental radio signal, radio message being sent across the, the Atlantic. Okay. So this is a big deal. It’s the 100th year anniversary. So the, the, the hams and the United States decided to reenact, and so they, or were gonna send from the, the east coast and, and so on. So I had to go out there and set up my radio and try to see if I could also detect it. Of course, they’re sending the signal the other way. They’re not sending it west. I didn’t have really a good antenna. It didn’t quite work, but it was fun. And, and that was something that kept me from, you know, writing the, the papers or the, the letters or whatever that I was supposed to be doing this weekend. So anyway, there’s still procrastination.

Peter O’Toole (00:45:39):
So, so do you know, I think there’s a lot of PhDs, postdocs who, who are very reluctant to publish their work. There’s always what always one more experiment that can be done. So how do you draw the line and say, no, we’ve got, you know, your procrastinator, so how do you actually say no, no, no, we do have to go with this now, do you have any advice for those who struggle to get to that point? And actually committed to publishing?

W. E. Moerner (00:46:03):
Well, I guess I’d like to make a distinction between being a procrastinator and, and being a perfectionist because I think they’re a little bit different procrastinator is doing thing else rather than working on what you’re supposed to be working on. A perfectionist keeps thinking, oh, I gotta do it a little more perfect. A little more perfect. A little more perfect. Okay. And that’s something that also can, can slow down publication. And the, the answer to that question is, is, is a tricky one. It depends upon the experiment. It depends upon the system. It depends a lot upon assessing what have we learned now? What have we learned so far? Have we learned a number of new things, and if we’ve got a reasonable number of new things, then, you know, there’s a great value in sending it out to the community to, to, so that other people can learn about this and start working on it as well. Um and, and I’m, I’m more in that category than taking a super long time before, before trying to submit something I have to admit though, let me just say, there’s, there’s always good and bad sometimes on certain things, part of this is because our culture and research in the United States is more tuned to getting results, re publishing papers and getting more grants. And, and because of the challenge of getting grants, because of the incredible challenge, there were many years that I did not get grants on, on our new biological imaging work. You, you know, that you better publish in order to get get the crucial funds that are required to support the group a a as a, as a university researcher, if you don’t bring that money in, you can’t pay the students. So that’s, that’s a very harsh realization, you know, that makes academia different from from what was going on at IBM. And so you know, that, I think unfortunately also pushes us sometimes to publish a little faster and,

Peter O’Toole (00:48:04):
And, and a lot of presure at work. And I presume, is this a lot of your lab

W. E. Moerner (00:48:08):
Yes. You can see we’re under great pressure there in that, in that wonderful moment.

Peter O’Toole (00:48:14):
Well, I can see your all wearing hats of some sort, which is always a great

W. E. Moerner (00:48:17):
Sign. So if you can’t quite see it because of your shoulder, but down on the floor, if you can move slightly more, maybe you can see the tip of a bottle of champagne. So there is a bottle of champagne to down there on the floor and the, the student in the middle, Josh Yu did graduate here. Okay. This was the, the result of a successful either a paper, you know, published in a high level journal or or a successful thesis defense. That that’s the kind of thing that have these, these celebrations for. And he he’s wearing protective helmet. Okay. Because we’re gonna shoot the cork down the hallway as far as possible. So the goal here is to shoot the cork down the hall of, of the laboratory as, as far as possible. And you see, there are interesting uh hel hats and helmets and so on. I have one on, but you may not be able to see that, but everybody is there, you know you know, cheering on the, the, the, the root member who has recently achieved something important and for this sort of shooting of the champagne cork. So this is just, I sent you this picture because it’s kind of a wonderful example. Some of the crazy things we do to have fun. We don’t just work, work, work. We, we we have some fun as well with, with with that, with things like that. And in that picture, I, I, I wanna show you something else. If you show it one more time, if you can you may notice that there is a belt bag around my waist here. Okay. So that is not quite understood by many people, but you know, it, I find it a way, a convenient way to you have the phone and the, you know, wallet and even a flashlight and a few important things that you might need in an emergency. It’s all I in from ham, radio and emergency communications kind of stuff, wanna be ready for what’s going on. So as part of a farewell party the students made some ceremonial belt bags with this one has says no ensemble averaging yep. On it. Designed by Alison Squires, the woman’s down here with, with the maroon cap. And, and the other student, whichever students were also leaving at the same post leaving at the same time as a item

Peter O’Toole (00:50:48):
Do you wear it?

W. E. Moerner (00:50:50):
Oh, this one, I, I, I, I’m still aware the, the old ugly looking black one, this one, this one’s so important. I couldn’t possibly, I, I might get it old, dirty. I have to put it in, in a special place inside the house.

Peter O’Toole (00:51:03):
That’s why you always need two of everything. So you can actually enjoy wearing one, keep the other one for keep safe. That’s

W. E. Moerner (00:51:09):
That’s right. That’s right. That’s right back to

Peter O’Toole (00:51:12):
It’s my questions. I, I, and actually my next one, you’re going to, I know the answer already TV or book

W. E. Moerner (00:51:18):
Uh well I actually, I think I have to say a mixture we watched the news quite a lot on TV because we, we, you end up looking at the news while, while exercising, let’s say in, in, in the mornings and, and books of course are something that I actually would like to read more I’m I’m unhappy that I haven’t read that many books. And I, I would like to read more it requires turning off all the other of things that have to be done and, and to dedicate time to that. Hey

Peter O’Toole (00:51:54):
What’s your favorite film, your favorite movie

W. E. Moerner (00:51:58):

Peter O’Toole (00:52:00):
Okay. And, you know, I wish I’d asked every guesses. I’ve only asked a few, what’s your favorite?

W. E. Moerner (00:52:04):
Although I have to say that the New Foundation series is really spectacular. Okay. Okay. Isaac Asimov many, many episodes, 10 episodes of the foundation has been really, really great, but I don’t think it displaces Contact.

Peter O’Toole (00:52:21):
What about your favorite Christmas movie?

W. E. Moerner (00:52:29):
I have no idea. I mean, it, it, I I’ll just say that this week I, I happen to get some crazy enjoyment out of watching the, the the woman who puts on this annual Christmas show about the only thing I want for Christmas is you Mariah Carey’s Christmas show was just nuts and this year, and, and fairly, fairly entertaining because of all the crazy things that were done,

Peter O’Toole (00:53:02):
That sounds like good fun. So, okay. Tea, your coffee.

W. E. Moerner (00:53:07):
I’m more of a coffee person, but I mix in teas also. So it’s like half and half these days.

Peter O’Toole (00:53:14):
Okay. Are they short coffees or are they big coffees?

W. E. Moerner (00:53:17):
Hmm. Big coffees. More often more often we do a brewed coffee rather than rather than espresso. Okay.

Peter O’Toole (00:53:26):
Beer or wine,

W. E. Moerner (00:53:29):

Peter O’Toole (00:53:30):
Red or white.

W. E. Moerner (00:53:31):

Peter O’Toole (00:53:32):
Okay. And if you were to be taking out food, what’s your favorite food type?

W. E. Moerner (00:53:40):
I think I would say seafood. I think I would say, you know, salmon, we have lovely salmon out here, so it’s really wonderful.

Peter O’Toole (00:53:47):
Do you have any food hates if you’re dished up? So you go to a conference you dished up, so you feel, I really don’t like that. What, what’s your nightmare food?

W. E. Moerner (00:54:00):
I don’t know. I I’m, I’m really I’m omnivorous right now. I didn’t used to like colored greens. Let’s say as my parents fed it to me a lot, I guess that might be something I don’t enjoy as much.

Peter O’Toole (00:54:18):
And who cooks at home?

W. E. Moerner (00:54:21):
Ah well, it’s more it’s my wife although I cook my breakfast every day. We, these days since we’re cooking a lot at home are utilizing one of these services that sends fresh food to us, and then we have to cut it all up and so forth and cook it. And so she often does a lot of the cutting. Sometimes I do a lot of part of the frying and so on, or not really always frying, but cooking, you know, and and, and finishing off some of the dishes. So as we, we tend to share when, when I can,

Peter O’Toole (00:55:02):
Okay. And now we are nearly up to the hour. Incredibly. It goes way too fast. I’d like to take you back actually. And I, I have read your, your Nobel piece and you actually sent me this picture of your parents. Mm-Hmm have they, do you think they’ve been the biggest influence on your career and who, who else has been an influence on your career?

W. E. Moerner (00:55:24):
Well, they’ve been a tremendous influence in the early, incredibly formative days up until age 18 or so, you know, after, after finishing high school and heading off to college during that time it was the, was that, that also important time? My mother was reading to me a very early on my father gave me a lot of appreciation for, for the sciences and through his connection with physics, chemistry, and electronics. And he was, he was also, by the way, in terms of images, he was, he was a professional photographer that was actually his career. So a lot of images there and so on. And and chemicals in, in the, because of the developing. But anyway, they, they just gave me a tremendous support in my work. And even though most people or there’s a lot of people that, that don’t want to leave Texas, where, where I grew up they still supported me when I went far away to Washington University in St. Louis rather than going to one of the universities in, in Texas, which are also very good. It was better for me to see the bigger world in, in terms of the overall development and they supported it in anyway. And, and so, you know, I was an only child, so it was a, it was a tough thing for them when I left of course the other major influences our, our mentors that have been really important along the way professor Jim Miller at, at Washington university was the one who got me more involved with experimental physics and projects in the laboratory and his laboratories at at Washington univer University. And he had a tremendous also personal influence in terms of advising me how to navigate through all the complexities of, of college. And then the other really important mentors is my thesis advisor Al Sievers that you saw in the, in that picture with, with the molecules. So, you know I’ve, I’ve profited from a number of really, really good mentors, even at IBM. Gary Doland at IBM was a, was a key key influencer in FM spectroscopy, which is what we, I use to detect a single molecule. So there’s, there’s a tremendous crew of, of people that I’ve been very thankful for.

Peter O’Toole (00:58:00):
And I, I also note that actually, you, you gained a scholarship, very early on, which you actually paid tribute to, to being a significant part. Cause none of this would’ve been possible without a scholarship in your, in your particular case.

W. E. Moerner (00:58:15):
Right, right. That, that was the influence of, of a very important counselor at the high school. So, so at the high school, there were many, many things going on. I was involved with on the spot, I was in the band, I was in speech and debate. I was in all kinds of events, but, but, and the, and of course the courses in science as well, but the, the counselor let me know about this very special Langston fellowship competition at Washington University. And that was a, a key influence because she urged me to apply for it. And, and, and I eventually got it. And being able to go to Washington university was a key step. Yes, absolutely. Right.

Peter O’Toole (00:59:04):
And on one final day, cause we are up to the hour. I can’t help, but admire your tie that you are wearing uh which actually, I’m not sure it’s not a big screen. What exactly is it?

W. E. Moerner (00:59:17):
Yeah, so you, you’re looking more of it. Uh you see that it’s we got many, many colors of, of the spectrum and so forth. This is, this is the SPIE tie. One of these societies that provides conferences on, on imaging, microscopy, lasers, photonics, and all kinds of things and has a, has a tie like that. I, I thought it might be kind of appropriate for, for this, for this today. Now,

Peter O’Toole (00:59:47):
Now I’m embarrassed not to be wearing my Royal Microscopic Society tie. I’m not a big tie man. Myself. I’m very much an open collar.

W. E. Moerner (00:59:55):
I’m not normally either, but you know this is a special occasion to be able to talk to you like this, Pete. Yeah. So,

Peter O’Toole (01:00:01):
W E thank you very much for joining me today. Everyone who’s watched or listened it is actually worth a quick watch as well to see some of the images that W.E actually I sent in. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been great to meet you get to know you personally, and I hope everyone’s really enjoyed it, and don’t forget to subscribe to the channels. W.E thank you very much.

W. E. Moerner (01:00:21):
It was my pleasure. It was my pleasure. Thank you as well. I, I really enjoyed chatting with you. Thank you.

Intro/Outro (01:00:28):
Thank you for listening to The Microscopists, a Bitesizebio podcast sponsored by Zeiss microscopy to view all audio and video recordings from this series, please visit


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