Nobel laureate taught him electron microscopy
“Good grief – Richard’s been awarded the Nobel Prize.” When the Nobel laureates in chemistry were announced, it turned out that LiU’s translator George Farrants had shared a corridor with one of them, in Cambridge during the 1980s.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry for 2017 was awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for the development of cryoelectronmicroscopy, a method to determine the atomic structure of biomolecules.
“I’d finished my PhD in X-ray crystallography, and was in the process of changing research field into electron crystallography,” George Farrants remembers. “I had been awarded a postdoc grant to work in Sweden, head-hunted by Stockholm University as an international expert.”
The only problem was that George didn’t know anything about electron crystallography. So the first thing he had to do was learn all he could from Richard Henderson.
“He was my teacher for three months in the autumn of 1981, before I moved to Stockholm.”
For the next three years, George Farrants worked with electron crystallography at Stockholm University.
“The way we worked then was very different from today, and there have been two fundamental developments,” says George Farrants.
The first is that it’s no longer necessary to use crystals: the computer processing methods developed by Joachim Frank mean that it’s now possible to study individual molecules. The second is that the specimen is much better preserved in the electron microscope: the methods used in the 1980s destroyed the structure being studied. This is where the work of Jacques Dubochet comes in – he developed a method to preserve the structure.
“We had to work very fast, to see anything at all before the structure was destroyed. Actually, a lot of the time we ended up looking at a pile of ashes. And, in addition, Richard Henderson was internal examiner for my PhD thesis.”
What was he like?
“He was full of energy,” George Farrants replies. “Full of life and ideas. We went out for a beer occasionally after work. Not very often, but it happened. He must be about 10 years older than me.”
It was clear already at that stage that Richard Henderson had the makings of a Nobel laureate.
“Actually, Henderson’s boss, Aaron Klug, was awarded the Nobel Prize in the same field in 1982. I couldn’t imagine that the same research area would receive two Nobel Prizes. But it’s a such an important field, and a great deal has happened in the past 35 years.”
Last updated: 2017-10-05