ZMB Video Prof. Dr. h.c. mult. Kurt Wüthrich
Nobel Laureate Professor Kurt Wüthrich is a member of the ZMB Scientific Advisory Board and provides mentoring for outstanding young scientists.
Interview with Kurt Wüthrich
In October 2017, Kurt Wüthrich talked about his early education in Switzerland and his scientific career, whether scientific success can be planned, and if a Nobel Prize can be a burden.
"Well, first of all, I had no idea what a career in science means. And I certainly had no intention to become a scientist."
Interview by Michael Ehrmann
A film by Carola Schubert & Christian Denkhaus
We would like to thank Kurt Wüthrich for sharing his time, thoughts, inspiring stories, and experiences!
Well, I was born in the hospital of Aarberg, Switzerland, and then I was raised in the town of Lyss, also in the Schweizer Seeland, and we lived on a farm. I was, in the early days, quite interested in the forest. And I actually transplanted many trees at home which made a big mess on the lawn, because these trees were growing too fast, too big.
Well, I don't remember that decisions have been made in a clear way. I once jumped the class at school and then I had to repeat the class but that wasn't planned. The 3rd grade, and 4th grade were together in one class. It was a relatively small school. And so, I just managed both years in one year, and was the best student of the upper class. And then they forced me to stay there for another year, that caused some disciplinary problems as is evident from the remarks in the booklet, the grade booklet. At some point someone had the idea that I should go to the Gymnasium, probably because they didn't want me anymore and wanted to get rid of me.
Climbing up the school career ladder…
And so, I then went to Biel to the Gymnasium. And that was very good. I mean, I would take the train to go to school. We would even go home for lunch at the time that means four times on the train, there were about 300 steps to go up the Jura Mountain to the school, so that helped to build up some stamina. And one of the guys in the class was the son of the director of the Federal School of Sports which was a couple of kilometres up the hill from the school and so very soon the main occupation was sports.
And the reason why I went into these studies was that I had an accident in military service, broke my right ankle. At that time this was a difficult injury to treat, you didn’t do surgery yet. So, I had to sort of stay quiet, and study. I mean, what happened was, that I had so much physics in high school. The teacher in high school was then the Professor of Physics at the University of Bern. I got my diploma in physics after three semesters. I first finished my degree in physics and then in math and then in chemistry, in Bern. And by that time my foot was ok again and then I started sports school. Which couldn’t be done in Bern, so I had to move to the University of Basel, to the Federal School of Sports in Magglingen, in between, and there I was essentially sure, that I would just go on teaching high school.
I think after half a year after moving to Basel, I got sort of bored and inquired about the possibility of working for a PhD. And then I got the PhD in Organic Chemistry. Did some reasonably innovative work, I think the first time ever - that’s what was later found in a historical review. For the first time ever, I recorded EPR spectra of paramagnetic metal complexes in solution. That was very far ahead of the time actually, I didn’t even know that. I just read some papers and found this was something I might do. Worked out well. I actually got my PhD after 14 months. So, it was very easy. Compared to sports, it was extremely easy. You wouldn’t get hurt, there was very much less risk than passing exams in sports.
Well, I can still walk, as you can see, which is not necessarily guaranteed at my age. It was a very good part of growing up being heavily in sports. One thing, it probably prevented us from committing too much nonsense. And it gave a sense of evaluating achievements, measurable achievements. I think that's more important in education than is generally claimed nowadays. Was a lot of fun.
You pride yourself to be the first sports teacher who received a Nobel Prize…?
I made my money early on as teacher, teaching sports, and that was well payed. If I accepted a job as graduate student, who at the university at that time would have to supervise medical students in practical exercises, I would be payed of the order of 300 Francs a month, and during 30, 30 some weeks, a year I would be blocked. If I was teaching, say, I think two afternoons a week in Gymnasium, just teaching gymnastics, I would make a thousand Francs. And I would be free otherwise. If I went skiing, I mean I teach skiing in season, I would easily make a couple of thousand a week. That was a lot of money at the time. So, I didn’t worry.
Well, that certainly helped me. That’s perfectly clear. I took a lot of things from sports into private life. When you prepare for a football game, there are many steps and you need about 15 pieces of equipment which I would lay out when I arrived on the sports field and I’m still laying out my things before I leave, in the morning when I go travel or before lectures, and so on. I would say the preparation for an important lecture is quite similar to preparing for an important football game.
Well, I mean, you don’t work for a Nobel Prize. That’s the first thing to say. And the second thing to say is that it was completely unexpected when it happened. As you may know I had a long collaboration with Professor Ernst from the ETH. I mean, we published about three dozen papers together. It must be ten years or so and then he got the prize alone in 1991. And there was no reason to imagine that they would give a second prize for pretty much the same thing to the same place. But they did, so that was very unexpected. But I mean, in my career, it has the effect that I didn’t have to retire. That is the most important thing. You may have heard of the “Lex Wüthrich”: Our parliament voted that I shouldn’t retire, be forced to retire, because of age. And so, it was very helpful, of course.
Can a Nobel Prize be a burden?
Well, I’m still a free man, and I can decide where I am knowledgeable about a given problem and where feel not up to, and I try not to meddle into things, where I don’t feel that I have the necessary knowledge.
I don't feel that I am overburdened. You can, of course, influence this. I could certainly arrange to be much more positive.
I think, I had heroes in science long before that. According to what I remember my parents would tell reporters and so, I would read all night when I was in high school. I mean, I would read mostly memoirs, memoirs of Bunsen and Liebig, and Sauerbruch, I remember, and I realized that all these guys got a PhD at age 21 or age 22. And so, I saw no reason why it should take me much longer. That really had an influence in the back of my head. I was reading this just because I was interested in a lot of things. I also remember having read the complete works of Churchill, all the way, this was thousands of pages. Though I had a big mess in my head from reading all this stuff, it did help a lot. I mean, I never had particularly shyness in front of people who were said to be famous or leading. It made a big difference to have read about this people.
Well, what do you mean with success?
I mean, success should make you happy, feel good. Otherwise you won’t enjoy things, and look, I mean, there are so many different ways to pursue science. Let’s take the Higgs particle. There were a couple of physicists at around 1964, who predicted that there needs to be an additional elementary particle for the standard model to be able to stand, and in order to find this particle, now you refer to as a Higgs particle, they constructed instrumentation at CERN for billions and billions of dollars, with the goal to find that particle. And that involved thousands and thousands of engineers, technicians, physicists, mathematicians. And over the years, they among others invented the Internet. Just on the side, and of course there are many, many technical advances that went more or less unnoticed into industrial production, producing very pure material for example, very clean surfaces, magnet technology and so on. There are a lot of benefits that had nothing to do with the particles, but which came out of the work by thousands towards the goal of detecting these particles. So that’s a research plan, ok? For thousands.
Now, in our field, in biology, the determination of the human genome was a similar plan. It was clear you had three billion nucleotides to sequence, full stop. How do you do it? And again, it involved a worldwide network. It was not centered in one place, as CERN is in particle physics. It was distributed all over the world, it was highly organized, it would not have been possible without the advances in computation and information technology by the year 2000. That was also a set goal, clear and defined.
And success as a surprise?
The real breakthroughs are usually done without such a clear goal in mind. There has just been a Nobel Prize for Switzerland for a scientist with the name of Dubochet. Now, what he did was to quick freeze protein samples. This is called vitrification and he did this at around 1982/1983. Also, in 1982/83 Rohrer developed the raster electron microscope, the electron microscope, also in Zurich. I mean we were actually in an intense contact. Also, at that time, we got the first structure of a protein in solution.
Now, Rohrer got a Nobel Prize in 1986 for that work, we got it in 2002, after about ten thousand structures had been solved and Dubochet got it this year. And why this delay? Because nobody was interested. I mean, there was this vitrification, but it didn’t help, because the technology of electron microscopy was not sufficiently advanced to allow making higher resolution pictures. And that changed only about 7 years ago, around 2010. Now all of a sudden, he gets cited all over the place and gets the Nobel Prize because it turns out that this is one of the three cues that were needed to get higher solution pictures by cryo electron microscopy. And that was not a big organization. That was just Dubochet and the technician. They just played around and found the right trick to get a vitrification that would enable taking high resolution cryo EM pictures.
Well, there are so many different issues that are urgent, that one has to choose.
Now in my field, I think that not being able to understand and prevent Alzheimer's disease is a big problem. It means so much damage to human dignity and to the quality of life, not only of those who are affected but those around them, that we have to find a way to improve that situation. This is certainly one of the problems – I don’t see a solution like many others don’t see. They think they do, I’ve not seen very encouraging progress.
As you may know, I worked on prion diseases since – well it’s now more than 20 years, and there are now ideas that Alzheimer’s might be more closely related to what happens with prion diseases. Said that again, prion diseases cannot be prevented at the moment and I see very big differences between the two. I mean, if I could make a real important contribution in this field, I would consider it a great thing to do.
We didn’t know that. That’s the first thing I have to say. We didn’t even realize that it made a difference whether we published in Nature or in FEBS Letters, say. Or in BBRC which was our favorite because they published with very little delay. And this is a very big difference to today. Also, the effort to get the paper into one of these leading journals is very big nowadays. I think that here in Germany and in Switzerland we can live with the situation, because we have reasonably well-established norms to evaluate research and to evaluate research proposals. But if you have no measures to evaluate research, it’s a very dangerous situation.
Is Open Source Publishing a solution?
You now have the possibility of submitting preprints. It’s not just the data storage, you submit preprints of papers. And this is a habit that physicists have used since the 1990ies. Physicists have the habit of publishing unreviewed preprints of the papers. Now the big question is, how do you retain priority. If you put the preprint up for general access, how can you ensure that you are not being scooped? So, they are now actually giving you dates when you submit the preprint, and with this date you can nowadays establish priority.
Do you see problems if anyone can access and comment on your work?
The danger is of course with non-specialists. Specialists in a given field will usually be able to distinguish between loose talk and serious data, but someone outside of a given field may be completely mislead by comments. But that is already so. I mean, there is so much exchange on the internet that just provides personal views. I simply don’t read any of this. It’s too much for me to digest. Already the published literature, if I start to look into this, I’m afraid, I couldn’t manage it.
Well, I’m well acquainted with Pierre Gagnaire, who has 3-star restaurants in Paris, in Tokyo, in Seoul, in London and he has a big interest in molecular cuisine, that’s why we are acquainted. He’s acquainted with other chemists, and I mean, eating in his restaurants is a real pleasure. It’s art, also in the presentation, whether it’s called molecular… He is probably one of the five most well-known followers of the molecular cuisine and he just prepares excellent meals. That’s all I can say. He was also very proud to show to me his kitchen in Seoul for example, it is about five times the size of my laboratory. And I think he just enjoys thinking in terms of molecules. It sounds good, makes him feel good and the result is pleasant.
And what about Rösti?
Well, you can’t eat the food of Pierre Gagnaire every day.