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THE SINGAPORE MAGAZINE OF RESEARCH,
TECHNOLOGY AND EDUCATION
About Innovation
SPOTLIGHT:
Scientist with a Passion for Success
Bringing together individuals of diverse cultures united by a common passion in science and research, the 6th International Science Youth Forum (ISYF) 2014 provided participants with a rare and unique experience of close interactions with the world's renowned scientists and researchers. The Forum was held from 19 to 23 January 2014 in Singapore and was jointly organized by Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) and the Institute of Advanced Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

The 6th ISYF saw the largest number of top scientists — 11 Nobel Laureates and Fields Medalists, and 90 top science students from more than 28 schools in 14 different countries across 4 continents.

HCI students, Darrel Long and Joel Tan, were privileged to interview one of the Nobel Laureates, Prof Kurt Wüthrich, and they share their experience.

Prof Kurt Wüthrich is, unquestionably, a scientist at heart. We had hardly settled down to interview him, notebooks at the ready, when he began shooting us questions of his own: What level of education are you at? What are you studying? What kind of sports do you play?

This affable curiosity certainly befits an academic of his standing. He currently holds distinguished professorial positions at both the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich and the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in California. He is perhaps best known for his contributions to the field of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy — a method of studying molecules — for which he won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

To call his work a mere "contribution" might be an understatement. NMR spectroscopy — named for its reliance on magnetic properties of nuclei — was a fairly nascent area of research when Prof Wüthrich first encountered it in 1957. Then a student at the University of Bern, he completed his doctoral thesis by investigating Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) spectroscopy, which though similar to NMR, was nevertheless a rather limited field at the time.

Today, thanks to Prof Wüthrich, NMR spectroscopy has carved out a niche for itself in scientific practice. Currently one of the most advanced tools available for studying molecules in solution, it not only reveals the structure of proteins, but often their function in a living cell as well. Beyond giving us deeper insights into the building blocks of life, real-world applications of NMR spectroscopy range from chemical analysis to pharmaceutical development, and perhaps even the early diagnosis of breast and prostate cancers.

For all the discoveries his work has brought, however, Dr. Wüthrich views his achievements with surprising equanimity. Ask him about his discoveries in NMR, for example, and he will dismiss them as mere "coincidence".

"The instruments were available," he said nonchalantly, referring to a high-resolution NMR spectrometer — one of the first of its kind at the time — belonging to the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Upon joining Bell Labs as a biophysicist in 1967, he was given responsibility for the maintenance of the instrument, but was otherwise free to use it for his own research, much to his delight.

Interestingly, Prof Wüthrich's other interests are comparatively down-to-earth. Despite early inclinations toward a scientific profession, he had long thought his true calling to be in sports. During his time at Bern, he would spend part of each winter as a ski instructor at Swiss mountain resorts; and later take up part-time teaching jobs in high schools, his specializations ranging from chemistry to gymnastics. To date, skiing remains an annual tradition for him.

For the professor, sport is more than a diversion. Sometimes, it even informed his more scholarly pursuits. While at Bell Labs, his background in sports gave him the "wild idea" of using NMR spectroscopy to study his own blood sample. The compounds found in blood proved particularly suitable for study using NMR and this paved the way for future discoveries which would reverberate through the field.

Whether out of a love for sport and physical activity, or driven by an intense yen for knowledge, Prof Wüthrich is not one to remain sessile. Since 1974, he has been to foreign locales the world over, with visiting faculty appointments to the University of California, Berkeley, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Yonsei University, among others. These travels, as Prof Wüthrich puts it, are a "give-and-take" process, and the interaction is never strictly one-way: he is just as happy sharing about his own culture and scientific experiences as he is learning about someone else's. The local students and professors he befriends also often pay visits to ETH Zurich where he is based.

His zeal for the unfamiliar may have begun in early adulthood, when he gained exposure to the French language, literature and theatre. This knowledge proves useful to date: nowadays, his professional visits often include France as a destination. While there, however, he is not above having a little "fun" and will on occasion treat himself — naturally — to French cuisine and wine.

This easygoing exterior, in fact, belies a formidable spirit. As with any kind of seminal work, his breakthroughs have met their fair share of initial resistance. He persevered for several more years, demonstrating that his results could be reproduced and allowing other scientists to independently confirm his findings before managing to silence his critics. For this reason, he said, the most important qualities a scientist should have are "self-confidence" and "a strong character" to weather any criticism.

During his visit to Singapore this year, Prof Wüthrich took part in a Panel Discussion at the Nanyang Technological University and had a dialogue with educators at Hwa Chong Institution for the 6th International Science Youth Forum (ISYF). He has high hopes for this year's cohort of ISYF participants, whom he wishes will embody that confidence, pushing boundaries in their chosen fields — especially since, he said, he is as normal as the rest of us.

"[Nobel Laureates] walk on two legs, work with two hands, just like everyone else," he makes clear. "[The ISYF participants] have all they need to succeed as the next generation of scientists, industrialists and entrepreneurs."


Professor Wüthrich's research interests are in molecular structural biology and structural genomics. His specialty is nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy with biological macromolecules, where he contributed the NMR method of three-dimensional structure determination of proteins and nucleic acids in solution. The Wüthrich groups have solved more than 70 NMR structures of proteins and nucleic acids, including the immunosuppression system cyclophilin Acyclosporin A, the homeodomainoperator DNA transcriptional regulatory system, and prion proteins from a variety of species.

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INNOVATION magazine is a joint publication of Nanyang Technological University, National University of Singapore and World Scientific Publishing Co Pte Ltd