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How a ‘Texas Boy’ Won the Nobel Prize and Palmaz Award
September 11, 2015


W.E. (William Esco) Moerner (l) and Dr. Julio Palmaz. Photo by Lester Rosebrock, courtesy of BioMed SA.

By Iris Dimmick, The Rivard Report

W.E. (William Esco) Moerner - professor of chemistry and applied physics at Stanford University, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 2015 Royal Society of Chemistry Honorary Fellowship Award - is also familiar with the art of patience. His groundbreaking work in super-resolution microscopy and spectroscopy requires almost constant explanation to people outside of his highly advanced scientific research field. Lucky for this inventor, the analogy was invented hundreds of years ago.

To describe how a super-resolution microscope works to a layperson, he has an arsenal of analogies. He deployed them with humor and grace as the Thomas Jefferson High School graduate (class of 1971) accepted BioMed SA‘s 10th Julio Palmaz Award for Innovation in Healthcare and the Biosciences during a dinner reception Thursday evening. BioMed SA also celebrated its 10th year last night with guests such as City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Mayor Ivy Taylor and other city leaders. It was a who's who of San Antonio politics and the health care and bioscience industries. The prestigious award celebrates "novel ideas put into action with tangible results" in health and biomedical fields, BioMed SA Board Chair Kenneth Trevett said, and alternates between local and national innovators each year. Moerner is the first scientist to be both as he grew up in San Antonio and now lives and works in Stanford, Calif.

The award's namesake, UT Health Science Center's Dr. Julio Palmaz, invented the first commercially successful intravascular stent. The native Argentinean's invention has been recognized as one of the "Ten Patents that Changed the World."

"(Palmaz's invention) has saved millions of lives. That is the caliber of the Palmaz Awards," said UTSA Vice President of Research Mauli Agrawal, also a previous recipient of the award, as he introduced Moerner.

So how does advanced microscopy and spectroscopy save lives? Super-resolution microscopes allow scientists to see the inner workings of cells and observe single molecules at the smallest scales. Until recently, molecules were essentially blurry, pixelated blobs. Doctors have begun to apply this new technology to better understand diseases, such as Huntington's, and the elusive mechanics of nanoscale biology.

"Science lifts the veil off nature," which is the meaning of the "other" side of the Nobel Prize Medal. Moerner pointed to this image during his acceptance speech - which turned into an intricate, but welcomed science lesson for many.

The Nobel Prize Medal. Left: The Swedish inventor, chemist, and engineer Alfred Nobel. Right: Nature in the form of a goddess resembling Isis, emerging from the clouds and holding in her arms a cornucopia. The veil which covers her cold and austere face is held up by the Genius of Science.

A baseball analogy that works for some and a blue jean analogy that works for others. What works best for many, including myself, were the fireflies.

Imagine a tree in the middle of a vast field. It's a cloudy night. It's dark. You want to see the tree and all its intricate structures - the bark, the branches, the leaves. Your only other source of light is a massive swarm of fireflies that have landed on every square centimeter of the tree. (Let's pretend, for the moment, that they will stay on this tree all night.) Take one photo of the tree: some fireflies are lit, some are not, illuminating only several dots, a constellation of a tree. Take another photo. More dots of lights in new places by more fireflies. Do this enough times, overlay the photos and those dots/fireflies will essentially make a pointillism representation of the tree.

"Remember art class?" Moerner said during an interview before his speech. "Those single dots can eventually paint a picture."

The blinking fireflies are molecules that reflect light waves at different intervals. Things that inhabit the nanoscale world are smaller/shorter than light waves, so shining a light on molecules inside cells only gives you a piece of the picture. A blurry piece. By stacking these photos on top of one another, nanoscale is revealed.

"You can observe life in a more interesting and different way," Moerner said.

The firefly tree is an imperfect metaphor because it's vastly more complicated than that, but for our purposes at the Rivard Report, we'll leave it at that. For those that want to dig deeper into his work, his scholarly publications are available online here.

Technically, Moerner was an infant when his family moved to San Antonio from Calif., but he considers himself from San Antonio.

During his speech, Moerner briefly reminisced of his "formative years" at Jefferson High School, which he affectionately calls "Jeff," and told the audience "how a Texas boy from the city won the Nobel Prize."

He was one of five valedictorians of his graduating class of 970 students. He naturally excelled at the sciences but was also active in speech and debate teams, literary magazines, and language studies. It was his experience with the National Science Foundation's Student Science Training and then a computer programming internship that ignited his path.

It's been almost 50 years since Moerner lived in San Antonio and he reflected on the city's growth.

"I've seen tremendous growth and development," he said. "(Back then) there was only the Methodist Hospital out in the South Texas Medical Center. (That was) the only thing. We could go out there and shoot out fireworks on the Fourth of July or go camping. ... There's been such huge growth in the diversity and quality of all things in the medical industry."

He has observed San Antonio's emergence onto the national biomedical radar.

"San Antonio had a lot of room to grow, so it's grown more (than other cities)," he said.

Moerner is the first Nobel Laureate that has accepted the Palmaz Award but he's the second Jefferson High School student to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, following Robert Floyd Curl, Jr., a 1950 graduate who earned the prize in 1996 for helping to discover fullerenes.

In 1971, when he graduated from Jeff, "we were not a bioscience hub," said BioMed SA president Ann Stevens. "Now all these years later, look where we are: we're still on the path to be nationally recognized but we have built something wonderful here - not just BioMed SA, I mean ‘we' San Antonio."

The Palmaz Award served (and continues to serve) as BioMed SA's first tool to "bring visibility of San Antonio's biomed sector," Stevens said. Switching from local to national innovators to receive the award was an idea former Mayor and BioMed SA Board Chair Henry Cisneros proposed. "When they come here they become ambassadors for San Antonio."

Since its inception, BioMed SA has worked to attract and retain countless biomedical research and product companies. It was also instrumental in bringing the World Stem Cell Summit to San Antonio last year.

"That was the first big example of saying, ‘Look, we're good at regenerative medicine and no one owns it yet. So let's put our stake in the ground," Stevens said. But that's not to say San Antonio can only have one industry label: Home of regenerative medicine, Military City, USA, Cybersecurity hub. "We're about collaborating within the sector to raise our collective visibility. It helps everyone recruit talent.

"‘Are you bigger than tourism?'" she recalled a reporter's question years ago. "We don't care if (health care and bioscience) is bigger than tourism - we are, we're twice as big as tourism - but that's not the point. The point is San Antonio needs a diverse economy. ... We're not competing with cybersecurity or tourism, it's all good. It's all in the mix."






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