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Leaders in Innovation

2024 NIHF Inductee Harald Hess: Enabling New Perspectives

Every year, the National Inventors Hall of Fame® looks forward to honoring a new class of exceptional creators, innovators and entrepreneurs. Our 2024 Inductee Class is made up of 15 visionaries who have shaped industries, advanced science and improved lives.

Among the newest Inductees we are proud to recognize are Harald Hess and Eric Betzig, the co-inventors behind photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM). This super-resolution imaging technology enables imaging at the nanoscale, so scientists can study biological structures, processes and diseases with greater clarity. Keep reading to learn more about Hess and his groundbreaking work.

A Resourceful Scientist

Hess was born Sept. 12, 1955, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Growing up in a small Midwestern town, he learned to be both resourceful and creative. His mother, a medical technician, and his father, a doctor, encouraged him to freely explore his interests, which often involved many areas of physics. He enjoyed working on science projects with materials he found in local shops, junkyards, libraries and even medical supplies catalogs from his father.

In an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Hess explained that his journey toward invention “started out just by purely following curiosity, trying to find something that's intriguing or new.”

After graduating high school, Hess earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago, followed by a doctorate in physics from Princeton University in 1982. He completed his postdoctoral research, on hydrogen atom trapping to make Bose-Einstein condensates, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


A Visionary Team

In the late 1980s, while he was working at Bell Labs, Hess began collaborating with his co-worker, friend and fellow National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee Betzig. Describing their collaboration, Hess said, “Eric and I had complementary interests and a very complementary set of expertise. Put together, each was learning a little bit from the other.”

At the time, Hess had been working on seeing quantum phenomena at cryogenic temperatures, such as individual magnetic flux lines or single electrons, with various new forms of scanned probe microscopy. Meanwhile, Betzig explored the limits of optical resolution to see individual molecules with his microscope. When they combined their expertise, they set out to make a microscope that could reveal the optical quantum states of a semiconductor. Their experiments would lead them toward a breakthrough a decade later.

From 1998 until 2005, Hess immersed himself in the microscopy and technology challenges of the hard disk drive and semiconductor industries. In 2005, he and Betzig made the decision to explore new research options together, and when they learned of new blinking fluorescent molecules, they realized its implication for a much higher resolution microscope.

In September 2005, Hess and Betzig each invested $25,000 and began to work toward their goal in Hess’ living room. It took them just two months to hand-build their prototype. This prototype, which was about the size of a soda can, used fluorescent proteins to differentiate individual molecules, and it surpassed the contemporary limitations of resolution in optical microscopy.

Hess and Betzig’s microscope was used successfully for the first time in 2005. This was a fundamental achievement in super-resolution microscopy for life sciences. In 2007, the co-inventors signed a license agreement with Zeiss to commercialize PALM technology.


A Drive to Innovate

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society, Hess holds 31 U.S. patents. His honors include the 2023 James Prize in Science and Technology Integration, which is awarded by the National Academy of Sciences.

Hess currently serves as senior group leader at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he continues to push boundaries in innovation.

“Here at Janelia, we've expanded into a very large-scale 3D, trying to see things at electron microscope resolution, but almost at the 1-millimeter scale, and combining that with PALM or other microscopy modalities,” Hess said. “For me, it's still pretty exciting. It's a whole new world.”


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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