ARLINGTON, Va.—Two decades ago, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) helped Dr. W.E. Moerner in his quest to find “a molecule in a haystack,” work that is transforming the field of medicine and has earned the Stanford University professor the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he received Dec. 10.
Moerner’s work has informed a new generation of scientists and created new possibilities in microbiology for disease management and drug development that could aid in the fight against Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
“Dr. Moerner is the latest in a long line of Nobel Prize winners that have had key research sponsored by ONR,” said Dr. Walter F. Jones, ONR executive director. “Like the others, his discoveries and breakthroughs have implications for both the Navy and society at large.”
ONR sponsored Moerner with a series of grants between 1982 and 1992 when the current Stanford professor was with IBM and laying the foundation for the work that has now earned him a Nobel Prize. ONR’s interest at the time was to develop techniques to observe atomic scale phenomena that would validate quantum mechanical theoretical predictions.
In essence, Moerner has been able to use techniques to turn the fluorescent lights of molecules on and off, using the glow to view living cells in the most intimate detail. In addition to being a breakthrough for microbiology, the research had an impact on quantum mechanics and has carried over into the world of nanoelectronics, where the Navy is investigating ways to develop more efficient and faster computing and communication devices.
Moerner has been quick to credit ONR and other federal agencies for funding his basic research. ONR’s support allowed him to add a postdoctoral researcher to his otherwise one-man lab operation at the time.
“I cannot overstate the importance of federal funding for basic research from organizations such as ONR,” Moerner said. “It is the lifeblood of fundamental science and contributes greatly to breakthroughs that benefit everyone.”
As Moerner’s lab has grown, so have the scientific possibilities stemming from his breakthroughs in spectroscopy, and ONR continues to push the research in directions that will make an impact for Sailors and Marines.
Today, ONR is sponsoring the work of one of Moerner’s former students. Harvard University professor Dr. Adam Cohen, a recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Young Investigator Program award, is studying electrical signals in the brain, work that could help the Navy build nanoscale computing devices, circuits and architectures.
Moerner is sharing this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a $1.1 million prize with Dr. Eric Betzig from the Janelia Research Campus at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Dr. Stefan W. Hell at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry.
Last year, University of Southern California professor Dr. Arieh Warshel, also supported by ONR in the 1980s, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in quantum and molecular mechanics.
More than 60 Nobel laureates since 1952 have been sponsored by ONR for their work in everything from precision timekeeping to laser technology.
For a complete list, visit: http://www.onr.navy.mil/en/About-ONR/History/Nobels.aspx.
For more information on this year’s winners, visit: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2014/.
Eric Beidel is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications.
Office of Naval Research