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Young Life Scientist Prize: Mark Bates, grand prize and North American regional winner

01/24/2011
Suzanne E. Winter

Harvard doctoral candidate Mark Bates made an accidental late-night discovery that led to an improved super-resolution microscopy technique.

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Last month, the winners of the 2010 GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists were presented with their awards at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Selected based on their research merit and their 1000-word essays on their achievement, four regional winners were awarded prizes of $5000; a grand prize winner chosen from these four finalists received $25,000. After returning home, three of these early-career researchers spoke with BioTechniques about their research, their future plans, and their prize-winning experience.

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Mark Bates' creation of a new fluorescent microscope helped him to win the 2010 Young Life Scientist Grand Prize.

Research assistant Mark Bates was working late one night in the biophysics lab at Harvard University when he noticed some strange behavior from the red fluorescent molecules he was studying through his microscope. “After photobleaching, the red fluorescent molecules I was working with would regain their ability to fluoresce if I exposed the sample to a brief pulse of green light,” he said.

Bates spent the remainder of his doctoral thesis characterizing the properties of fluorescent switching, eventually creating a high-resolution microscope that relies on fluorophore localization instead of diffraction. Upon completing his thesis, Bates detailed his achievement in an essay titled “A New Approach to Fluorescence Microscopy,” which took the 2010 grand prize in the GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists.

“An interesting aspect of this work is that some of the discoveries were accidental,” admitted Bates. “I certainly didn’t set out to build a better microscope at the beginning of my doctoral work.”

Working as a graduate student in Xiaowei Zhuang's lab at Harvard, Bates helped develop stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM), which allows researchers to look at selected fluorescent labels corresponding to single molecules, all with nanometer-scale precision. “After thousands or millions of molecular positions have been measured, their coordinates are plotted and, like a connect-the-dots picture, the positions map out an image of the original sample,” said Bates. “The resolution of this new type of image exceeds that of a conventional light microscope by a factor of 10 or more. In principle, there is no fundamental limit to the spatial resolution which could be obtained by this approach.”

After completing his thesis in applied physics at Harvard, Bates accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany. “Some people say, ‘Seeing is believing,’” he said, “and what these methods will do is allow researchers to see more detail within a specimen, and learn more about the fundamental biology at work.”