In perspective

The frontiers of scientific research are often pushed forward by the ability of scientists to make observations not previously apparent to others.

As part of his studies on light and optics, the seventeenth century English experimentalist and philosopher Robert Hooke improved upon the primitive microscopes of his day, to open up a whole new world of study. The enhanced performance of his new microscopes allowed him to make unprecedented observations of a multitude of tiny objects. For instance, his observations of a slice of cork revealed honeycomb-like pores for the first time. Because these pores reminded him of the cells used as living quarters in a monastery, Hooke called the structures “cells”—the first use of the term to describe the basic unit of life.

Since Hooke’s early example, the demands of biological applications have pushed microscopists to make steady progress in magnification, illumination, and resolution. With each advance, more and more of the inner workings of the cell have become visible. Most recently, this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry recognized the work of three scientists in achieving resolutions smaller than half the wavelength of light—a limit previously presumed to be insurmountable.

This issue’s cover story describes how the centuries-long tradition of collaboration between biologists and microscopists takes form at the Institute. The article highlights the activities and achievements of the Microscopy Center, one of the Institute’s largest scientific support centers. The Institute’s scientists have access to eighty microscopes, which vary greatly in purpose and complexity. Eleven resident experts ensure that the instrumentation is used to maximal benefit.

Yet, a keen ability to make significant observations requires more than just cutting-edge instrumentation. As Louis Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.” Training is required for scientists to learn how to set up experiments to maximize the chance of making an interesting observation and how to recognize when a chance observation might have special significance.

The Institute has a variety of training and mentoring programs to help prepare the minds of the next generation of scientists. A second story in this issue highlights the intensive research opportunities for postdoctoral researchers—scientists embarking on the post-PhD phase of their careers. In recent years, Investigator Jerry Workman, who heads the postdoctoral affairs program, has led a set of distinctive initiatives focused on enhancing the postdoc experience and preparing these scientists for the next step in their careers.

Centuries ago, scientists like Hooke made their own simple instruments, worked largely in solitude, and taught themselves whatever was needed. In contrast, the modern practice of biological research, especially at the Institute, involves advanced technology, teamwork, and training. I hope you enjoy reading the stories that follow and will reflect upon how new observations can arise from the confluence of technological, organizational, and intellectual advances.