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2024 NIHF Inductee Eric Betzig: Endless Exploration

Have you heard about PALM, or photoactivated localization microscopy? This super-resolution imaging technology is allowing scientists to study biological structures, processes and diseases with greater clarity. For their co-invention of PALM, Eric Betzig and Harald Hess will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame® as part of our 2024 Inductee Class.

Read on to learn about Betzig and his ongoing exploration, innovation and impact.

Curiosity and Hard Work

In an interview with the New York Times, Betzig said, “If there is one way I characterize myself, it’s as an inventor. My father is that, too. He spent his life inventing and making tools for the automotive industry. I grew up around inventors.”

Betzig was born Jan. 13, 1960, and he grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He spent many Sunday mornings during his childhood in the machine shop where his father worked, and he said he learned the value of hard work from his father at a young age.

“I can't stress enough how important hard work is to success,” he said. Not only did Betzig enjoy exploring the machine shop, but he also taught himself how to program there when he was just 12.

At the California Institute of Technology, Betzig earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1983. He then studied at Cornell University, where he earned master’s and doctorate degrees in applied physics in 1985 and 1988, respectively. In 1988, Betzig took a position at Bell Labs, where he began collaborating with his friend and fellow National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee, Harald Hess.


Creative Collaboration

While Hess was studying quantum phenomena at cryogenic temperatures with new scanned probe microscopes he developed, Betzig investigated super-resolution optics by scanning a subwavelength-sized illuminated hole across a specimen. As the pair began to combine their technologies, they discovered they could resolve individual light emitters in a semiconductor at even higher resolution than this hole size, identifying them by subtle differences in their colors made apparent at the extremely cold temperatures in Hess’ cryostat.

Though he set out to achieve ambitious goals in microscopy, as Betzig encountered substantial challenges, he decided to leave Bell Labs in 1994 and join Ann Arbor Machine Co., a machine tool business founded by his father. Here, he served as vice president of research and development until 2002. Because Betzig found he “missed the basic curiosity of being in the lab,” he eventually chose to renew his collaboration with Hess.

While Betzig and Hess were on a trip to Florida in 2005, they learned about a new class of fluorescent molecules that could be “photoactivated” at will. They instantly recognized a connection to their earlier experiment, seeing that time could replace color and, even better, at ambient temperature. So, by repeatedly activating different sparse subsets of such molecules in a biological specimen and “localizing” the position of each to subwavelength accuracy, Betzig and Hess could build an image of the specimen at 10 times higher resolution than conventional microscopes.

To accomplish this, they invested $25,000 each and began working in Hess’ living room. Betzig and Hess built their revolutionary prototype in just two months.

With its power and simplicity their new technique was quick to catch on, and it is now used routinely for studying tiny subcellular structures and nanoscale molecular motion in cells. In 2014, Betzig shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with William E. Moerner and Stefan Hell for “super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.”


Focus on the Future

Betzig holds 42 U.S. patents. A co-founder and scientific adviser of Eikon Therapeutics, he currently serves as a professor of molecular and cell biology and experimental physics, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Among his many honors are Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award and the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize.

Looking toward the future, Betzig is determined to keep exploring and innovating. In an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, he shared, “I feel like there are bigger, more important questions that need to be addressed, and even though I know nothing about those fields, at least I have the freedom, thanks to my success, to be able to explore them. I don't expect to change the world myself, but I hope to at least be one of the troops on the front line.”


Meet More of Our World-Changing 2024 Inductees

To learn more about the new National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees whose stories will inspire generations through our events, museum exhibits and invention education programs, visit our website.

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