On October 8, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2014 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, including Washington University Arts & Sciences alumnus William E. Moerner.
Moerner currently serves as the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at Stanford University. He shares this year's Nobel Prize with two colleagues, Eric Betzig, of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Stefan W. Hell, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, in Germany, for their work on "the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."
James G. Miller, the Albert Gordon Hill Professor of Physics and mentor to Moerner, has explained his groundbreaking work in this way: "For the entire history of chemistry, and for that matter, most of physics, we've had to deal with collections or ensembles of atoms and molecules. And we can infer things about the individual atom or molecule from that ensemble, that collection. But everyone has always wanted to look at the individual molecule. Never was that even thought to be possible until the work of W. E. Moerner."
Moerner's research essentially created the field of nanoscopy, which allows optical microscopy to be used to observe objects smaller than 0.2 micrometers, including individual molecules and their interactions and even structures within molecules - a process once thought impossible, as Miller explained.
“It is gratifying to see Professor Moerner’s outstanding work in chemistry recognized by the Nobel committee," said Barbara A. Schaal, the dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor of Biology. “Our students and alumni push the boundaries of their disciplines, and we are proud of this tradition. Professor Moerner’s work is truly exceptional, and we are delighted to join in celebrating the achievement of our exceptional alumnus.”
In 1975, Moerner graduated summa cum laude from Washington University with degrees in physics, mathematics, and electrical engineering, with final honors in both physics and engineering. As an undergraduate, Moerner worked closely with Professor Miller in his laboratory for ultrasonics. Miller encouraged and oversaw Moerner's first self-driven and creative research efforts as a part of undergraduate research program at Washington University. Impressed with his work, Miller took him to his first conference, the 1974 IEEE Ultrasonics Symposium, where the young Moerner gave a presentation and co-authored two additional talks.
Moerner went on to do graduate work in chemistry at Cornell University and has remained in this discipline ever since. When he was honored in 2013 with an alumni achievement award by the Washington University School of Engineering, Moerner spoke about his love of the field: "One thing that's exciting about chemistry is that it's a science that is in between several other sciences, for example, biology and physics, and in addition, engineering."
Moerner continued saying, "I regard myself as a continuing, perpetual student. I love learning new areas of science. I really enjoy tremendously the unity of science."
Read more about Moerner and the award in the WUSTL Newsroom.