Considerans Gouden medaille 2015
What is the link between electron microscopy and chemistry. Are these related? Or mutually exclusive? Irrelevant questions perhaps in the larger scheme of things. But highly relevant for us. We had to consider your candidacy for the KNCV “Gouden Medaille’. We, that is, besides myself, committee members Titia Sixma, Marcel Wubbolts, Bert Weckhuysen, Albert Heck, Joost Reek, Thom Palstra and Albert Schenning.
We received a total of fifteen candidates. All outstanding scientists. Several excellent candidates for the future. Several excellent candidates who unfortunately turned 40 and whose talent years are over. All obviously chemists.
All, that is, except from you. To what extent is method development for electron microscopy chemistry? And, if so, should the most important chemistry talent award in the Netherlands go to a software developer? Also when considering the superb list of candidates we had?
To me, chemistry is the interaction of, and reaction between, atoms and molecules. Chemical bonds are between one and a few Ångstrom in dimension and any technique that enables the study of matter at this scale contribute to chemical science. Crystallography progressed from structural biology to structural chemistry by reaching this resolution. And, thanks in a large part to your work on software development, electron microscopy has now reached such sub-nanometer resolutions. That is indeed an important development for chemistry.
Your RELION software has accelerated an ongoing revolution in cryo-electron microscopy. By the introduction of Bayesian statistics to classify single particles you have improved the interpretation of the images and allowed the modelling of beam-induced motion. Suddenly 3 Ångstrom structures are regularly achievable for anyone using your software. In your lab this has contributed to high-resolution structures of ribosomes bound to antibiotics and the first detailed structure of gamma-secretase, which has important implications for fighting Alzheimer’s disease.
These developments allow structure determination without the need for crystallisation. This opens up new possibilities for structure analysis of transient states, and to look at different states on a single EM grid. This makes electron microscopy not only an alternative, but for large molecules, even the successor of crystallography. It opens up new alternatives for drug development for previously intractable proteins. It enables high-resolution structure analysis of conformational changes in short-lived complexes.
A true revolution and a major contribution to chemistry, we concluded. And, considering all candidates, the most impressive one. We did not conclude this straightaway, because as said we had other strong candidates. Therefore we made a shortlist, and asked for referee letters from experts in the field. Based on these letters, we unanimously decided on you as the recipient of the KNCV Gouden Medaille 2015.
You are an unusual candidate in more than one aspect. Most medals in the past went to chemists who made their major discovery in the Netherlands. Indeed were active in the Netherlands at the time the medal was awarded. You, though Dutch and trained in the Netherlands, made your major discoveries abroad, at the MRC-LMB in Cambridge, UK, where you are group leader. Your CV is also somewhat different from the average candidate. Much shorter. Less papers, but almost all in top journals.
You are unusual also in the international attention you received. On 17 December 2014 Nature put out a list with ten scientists internationally that mattered in that year. You were on it. Probably the only one in this room this ever happened to. Likely the only awardee of the Gouden Medaille.
Perhaps, in the future, the KNCV Gouden Medaille will be considered as highly prestigious because you are listed as a recipient.
I conclude that, though unusual, you are a very worthy recipient of this award. My congratulations, and that of the committee as a whole, with this honour. Congratulations also to family and friends, and may it serve as a stimulation to perform excellent research in the future. To bring electron microscopy to full maturity and thereby contribute in solving the structure of large biomolecular structures on a molecular and even atomic level.
Herman Overkleeft, chair
KNCV Gold Medal 2015 Committee