Biography - long version

October 1941

Conceived by optimistic parents

This was a bad time. The Germans were approaching Moscow. Switzerland was encircled by countries under the Nazi or Fascist regime. My father, a civil engineer, was building fortifications for the army. My mother Liliane was taking care of my sister Michèle, 3, and my brother Emmanuel, 2.

Born June 8, 1942

1946

No longer scared of the dark, because the sun comes back; it was Copernicus who explained this

To make it simple – too simple almost – two answers were offered me: either prayers from my Protestant mother or logical explanations from my atheist father. As time passed, the second option began to seem more and more alluring.

1948-55

1st part of an experimental scientific career in Wallis and Lausanne (instruments: knives, needles, strings, matches)

My father was building a dam, high up in the mountains. We were living in a small village where electricity was only recently brought in, thanks to the dam's work site. At school, there were only two classes for the boys, each with a wooden stove in the middle. Good boys were allowed to sit close to the stove, while bad boys had to sit by the window. Since we were the engineer’s children, our place was always by the stove!

We spent the six-month long summer holidays in a chalet further up, closer to Dad's work. We had no electricity, and there were no shops close by. Rye bread was getting hard after a few weeks. There was a big rock (but not as big as it seemed at the time, as I realized when I came back as an adult man) on which my brother and sister used to spend hours climbing and playing. This particular rock was too steep for me, but there were thousands other adventurous and experimental places for a boy to get lost in all around the mountain slope and down by the river.

Then, we moved to the big city of Sion and to the even larger capital of Lausanne where I had to find my way, the hard way, through a more standard education system. I succeeded somehow – exactly how remains a complete mystery to me – in passing the college exam (normally passed at 11, but I was already one year late).

1955

First official dyslexic in the canton of Vaud - this licensed me to be bad at everything ... and allowed me to understand those with difficulties

It didn't take long for my parents to find out that my grades were not promising, but they noticed that my spelling mistakes were unusual, just like those of my brother. They brought this to the attention of the college’s director. He decided to take the case further, and thus I became the first recognized dyslexic child of the canton of Vaud. This meant that I was allowed to graduate from one class to the next despite my grades, which were getting more and more hopeless. That wasn't a nice time. I went from being bad at spelling to being bad at everything, because dyslexia was my “laziness pillow”.

But all was not lost. Following the instructions in a book by Jean Texereau, I was building a 15-cm aperture telescope. My handywork teacher spent more time helping me than he spent with all my classmates put together. The college director retired shortly before I reached the end of the compulsory school program. Once he was gone, it didn't take long until I was expelled. Still optimistic, and creative, my parents sent me to the boarding school of Kantonschule Trogen, deep in Swiss-German speaking Switzerland. The message was clear: either I move on, or I get stuck.

One year later, the German teacher asked me to give a presentation in class. I spoke about rockets, and I must admit that it was pretty good. I knew I was on my way to become a scientist. And that was the end of the Swiss-German episode.

1962

Federal maturity exam

After the salutary awakening in Trogen, my parents sent me to a private school in Lausanne where I could prepare the entrance exam for University. It was a time of intense catching-up. I am still surprised by how much a teenager or young adult can learn when they are motivated. My cultural background in poetry, music, history, and geography is still strong, since they're not language and spelling-based disciplines. The maturity examination went well.

Friendly and polite, but socially unskilled, I gained preliminary social experience in homes for disabled children where my sister, who was a work therapist, brought me during the holidays. Then it was time for the army, mandatory in Switzerland! I still have some nightmares from this period, but I also know now that I benefitted from having such regular contact with my fellows. I even became an officer, even though I wasn't really in good shape at the time.

1967

Physicist-engineer at EPUL, soon to become a biologist.

I wanted to understand the world, the living world in particular, and to become a scientist. At that time, Physics were shaping Biology. Watson, Crick, Kendrew and Perutz had just won their own Nobel prizes. Quite obviously, I chose to study Physics at EPUL, the École Polytechnique de l'Université de Lausanne (now federalized as EPFL), where my father had studied Civil Engineering. I found calculus difficult during the first year and, contrary to some of my admirable classmates, I didn't become a skilled mathematician. Nevertheless, I enjoyed everything I learned tremendously. I felt more and more at home in Physics, mostly thanks to my Pofessor, Jean-Pierre Borel, and to Feynman's three volumes of “Lectures on Physics”.

During my second year, I went up to my favorite Professor and asked him for advice. "Where shall I go to do a PhD in Biology once I'm finished with my diploma?" His answer was the obvious one: "Go to Prof. Edouard Kellenberger, at the Laboratory for Biophysics in Geneva." So there and then I went. Edouard was very friendly and he offered me a position as a doctoral assistant straight away. "Not so fast," I had to replay, "I still have 3 more years to go with my studies in Lausanne.” "OK, come back in 3 years, then." And just as promised, three years later, there I was again. In the meantime, Edouard has been to the States and he had gotten married to Cornelia, and  had completely forgotten me. I got the doctoral assistant position anyway.

The Laboratory for Biophysics at the University of Geneva was a remarkable place (Strasser, 2006) – it was one of the places that launched Molecular Biology in Europe. Science was practiced there at in a most enthusiastic, creative, and open way. Mountain touring and climbing the Salève were the only deragoratory activities I allowed myself after long working hours spent giving Biology courses and working in the lab with my electron microscope – an old RCA EMU2.

1968

Very important

Then came the student revolution. There was no escaping it. And so we didn't. Feeling very unprepared, I played along this game of being politically active in the midst of a big turmoil. We were left-oriented of course, even though our "Group 2002" (as it was baptised) didn't really match everyone's positions. We already had a strong feeling and commitment towards environmental protection. I cherish the memory of the moment when, having climbed high on a pole to plaster a poster against a car exhibition, I saw, down below on the street, two smiling policemen waiting for me to come down. That stunt cost me a major part of my meager salary.
A friend, more committed to the revolution than me, gave up his studies and completely rejected his family. His father, a banker driving a big black car, told me, perhaps because I still looked like I was a bit reasonable: "Don't worry, he will soon be back to normal again." At that moment, I thought to myself: "None of us will ever be." At least not "normal" like that gentleman meant it.

1969

Certificate of Molecular Biology in Geneva to become a biophysicist. Began to study electron microscopy of DNA, which remained my main topic

My diploma in Physics didn't bring me much knowledge in Biology. This particular certificate was designed to bridge that gap, in order to produce a new kind of scientist: the biophysicist. Namely: biologists with physicists' logic. I took classes with Biology students and, more importantly, I discovered the way of life of those dedicated to the observation of nature. With them, I woke up at dawn for bird watching and digging the soil to count earthworms.

1973

Thesis in biophysics at Geneva and Basel with Eduard Kellenberger who taught me Biophysics, ethical responsibility and durable friendship

Eduard Kellenberger was mandated to lead the final construction and early operations of the new Biocenter at the University of Basel. He took with him a strong working group of colleagues and students. Most of us were still quite politically active. My strong suit was still environmental protection and durability, but the work in the laboratory was taking most of my time. I became the first Philosophy II graduate from the Biocenter with a PhD entitled "Contribution to Dark-Field Electron Microscopy". In fact, Dark Field was a minor part of the PhD and the conclusion was that it is not very useful for biological observation.

However, I learned how to operate an electron microscope as well as a lot about the strange behavior of matter at a small scale.

1970 -76

Very classic psychoanalysis

As with most people in a psychoanalysis, my private life turned out to be quite intense during that time. Toward the end, I met Christine. Our second encounter was during a protest against a nuclear power plant they planned to build near Basel (it never was). Christine is an art historian from Basel and Paris. She was teaching art in an Art School. We settled in together and got married when she decided to move with me to Heidelberg. What did I get from the unreasonable effort of a Freudian psychoanalysis? I asked myself this question, walking along the Rhine after my last session. The answer I came up with was "I don't know yet, but in ten years' time I will." Ten years later, I thought to myself that that decision was pretty good. And in ten more years I thought it was very good. Now, I do believe that it was the best decision of my life, second only to staying with Christine.

1978

Group leader at EMBL (Heidelberg); how to deal with water in electron microscopy. Discovery of water vitrification and development of electron cryo-microscopy

The newly formed European Molecular Biology Laboratory, hidden in a beautiful forest above the old city of Heidelberg, was a kind of paradise for research. John Kendrew, the founder of the laboratory and first General Director, appointed a host of young scientists who all had ambitious projects. Everything was arranged for us to work freely and under the best possible conditions, with the only expectation being that of producing knowledge of some significance. My project consisted in learning how to deal with water in electron cryo-microscopy. It didn't start well, but we have been lucky with the unfolding of it. That story has been told elsewhere (Dubochet, 2011).

At that time, we were living in a small village in a vineyard south of Heidelberg. Christine gave birth to a boy, Gilles, and 18 months later to a girl, Lucy. I was used to working early in the morning and coming back in the middle of the afternoon. I thus had the opportunity of participating closely to our family life. We were living closely with a lovely group of parents sharing our child care as well as education. What a blessed time!

1987

Professor at UNIL, Department of Ultrastructural Analysis

I was among the lucky few who had a permanent contract at EMBL. Nevertheless, I was very attracted to teaching and I started to doubt the fact I could spend all of my remaining professional life doing pure research only. I didn't hesitate for a second to accept the offer of a professorship in Lausanne, which involved the management of the well-established Electron Microscopy Center, as well as  the chance to install a brand new Laboratory for Ultrastructural Analysis where I could pursue my own research under favorable conditions. During the 20 years I spent as a Professor in Lausanne, I was also lucky enough to expand my research to the field of Science in society. We developed a mandatory curriculum for all students, to ensure they'd be as proficient scientists as they'd be citizens.

1998

President of the Biology section with the chance to perform this assignment with Nicole Galland and Pierre Hainard, and to live at a moment when interesting things were happening in Biology in Lausanne

Interesting indeed! This was the time of a major rearrangement taking place between the UNIL and the EPFL. The impulse was a good one. At that time, Biology was the exclusivity of UNIL but departments of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry existed both at UNIL and EPFL. This seemed unreasonable. It was thus decided to congregate these three fields exclusively at the EPFL and to reinforce Biology accordingly at the UNIL. But setting this up became very complicated. At that point, I discovered how complicated politics could prove to be.

The result of this whole affair was, indeed, the move of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry to EPFL but, in an unexpected twist, the EPFL also developed a strong department of Life Sciences and, at UNIL, what was left of the Faculty of Sciences merged with Medicine into the new Faculty of Biology and Medicine. The result turned out to be probably better than the original plan in the end, but what an upheaval it all was!

2002

End of my assignment. Sabbatical in Australia, Germany and Paris

2004-7

Maturation of CEMOVIS (cryo-electron microscopy of vitreous sections)

The success of electron cryo-microscopy relies on the observation of very thin specimens, in the sub-µm range. This is even too thin for the observation of a single normal cell, without even mentionning a tissue or of a complex organism. From the start, our electron cryo-microscopy project included the observation of bulky specimens. In that aim, the general strategy consists in vitrifying a volume as large as possible and then cut it into vitreous sections that can be directly observed in the electron cryo-microscope.

That method presents a number of difficulties that we summarized with the acronym SIVEMCATOR (Al-Amoudi, Studer and Dubochet, 2004) which, for some, is the symbolic expression of the hopeless task that I imposed on a number of my collaborators. I think they are wrong. The need for electron cryo-microscopy of bulky specimens is obvious and CEMOVIS is the most direct way to get to it. My guess is that the success of the thin film vitrification method applied to macromolecular complexes or small organels has depleted the group of those ready to accept the most challenging task of large objects. But this will change. The future of CEMOVIS is bright.

June 2007

Retirement Colloquium

2007 >

Host of the Department of Ecology and Evolution. Science and Society for the elderly

Retirement in Swiss universities is compulsory at the age of 65. Some try to find a solution to continue with the work they are trained for and good at. I thought that, with a bit of luck, I wouldn't be so old at 65. Statistically, it still leaves you with about 20 years of creative life. I decided to cultivate my four “S”s.

The first S stands for Self, taking good care of oneself.

The second S is Social, it is living together. I started teaching basic mathematics to young migrants. Then that effort broadened and I went into politics in my small town and, just like in the old days, back to the movement for environmental protection.

The 3rd "S" stands for Science, because it's still my passion. I've had the chance to keep my mind at it, through direct contact with my colleagues at the University, where they generously left me an office in a corner.

The last S means Service, simply because the fruits of the quince tree are better in an marmalade than rotting on the ground, and because dishes must be placed in the dishwasher. My sister gave me the advice to devote the first year of my retirement to learning this new and particular kind of job. At the end of the first year, I realized that a second year of training was necessary. Ten years later, that work is still in progress. The children are grown up. We have a son-in-law who is from India. They are all working for the common good or for help development. They have not yet made us grandparents, even if we are active members of the association "Grandparents for Climate" (https://www.gpclimat.ch/fr/)

4 October 2017 Ouch! A Nobel Prize

Christine says: "It’s a good thing for us that you got it late, and that you thus had 10 years of retirement to broaden your horizons."

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Bibliography

Al-Amoudi, A., Studer, D., & Dubochet, J. (2005). Cutting artefacts and cutting process in vitreous sections for cryo-electron microscopy. J Struct Biol, 150(1), 109-121.

Dubochet, J. (2011). Cryo-EM - The first thirty years. J Microscopy, 245(3), 221 - 224.

Strasser, B. J. (2006). La fabrique d'une nouvelle science. La biologie moléculaire à l'âge atomique (1945 - 1964). Leo S. Olschki, Geneva.