Photo: Mike Wren
A former Albany-based scientist received his Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Sunday.
Joachim Frank, one of three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, did much of the work that won him the prestigious award at the Wadsworth Center in Albany during the 1970s and ’80s before moving to Columbia University in 2008.
The German-born Frank, who was also on faculty at the University at Albany during his time at Wadsworth, is sharing the Nobel Prize for his work on cryo-electron microscopy with Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and Richard Henderson of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.
Cryo-electron microscopy is a technique of freezing biomolecules and using electron beam microscopes to better visualize how these molecules look and work.
Frank, 77, began at Wadsworth, the state Department of Health’s research lab, in 1975. He remains a visiting professor at UAlbany, according to his curriculum vitae.
It was for Frank’s work on electron microscope technology during his time at Wadsworth and UAlbany that he was awarded the prize.
“Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable. Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope’s fuzzy two-dimensional images are analyzed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure,” the The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its announcement of the award Wednesday.
Frank was born in 1940 in Siegen, Germany and earned his Ph.D. in 1970 from the Technical University of Munich.
At Wadsworth, Frank was known for his research on ribosomes, which are like factories for cells.
He is also known as a Renaissance man of sorts, known for his fiction writing and photography, having taken classes from author and Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy and others.
“Joachim Frank is a gifted and visionary biophysicist with far-reaching interests, such as creative writing and gardening,” Marlene Belfort, director of life sciences research at UAlbany, told the Times Union in October after the announcement was made.
Belfort said Frank was a distinguished professor in the biomedical sciences department at UAlbany before going to Columbia in 2008 and that she worked with him at Wadsworth for almost three decades, having been a co-author on several research publications over the years.
“He laid the foundations of a technique to image molecules that are of primary importance in cells,” Belfort said. “Basically, he developed the methods to construct a three-dimensional image of the molecule from many thousands of two-dimensional images, embedded in ice and photographed through an electron microscope.
“The resolution of this technology, called cryo electron microscopy, has become so high and the images so detailed that the method has become favored for imaging molecules and molecular machines that are of key importance in the functioning of cells,” she said.
Frank’s wife Carol Saginaw is also well known in the Capital Region, having been executive director of the Early Care & Learning Council in Albany.
The NobelPrize.org website put together a wide-ranging interview with Frank in which he talks about his research and how photography and microscopy are linked.
“I’m just very visually oriented,” Frank says in the interview. “I see patterns very, very fast in the background.”
When the honor was announced several months ago, Frank said that both Wadsworth and Columbia played a role, he believed, in his being chosen for the Nobel Prize.
Frank is now a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center and biological sciences at Columbia University.
“Wadsworth Center was a very nurturing place, and for quite some time I was able to develop these methods,” Frank said. “But I’d like to say, the move to Columbia was very instrumental in being able to reach out and develop contacts and friendships with colleagues over departments, and I was also able to draw from brilliant students I was able to recruit here. And altogether, the move to Columbia was a milestone for me, and I’m very grateful.”
New York state Health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, praised Frank for his work done while at Wadsworth.
“Thanks to his influential work, researchers are now able to precisely target pharmaceuticals at the atomic level, leading to new treatments for life-threatening diseases and building the foundation for further scientific progress,” Zucker said in a statement. “I congratulate Dr. Frank on this tremendous achievement and thank him for his many years of service to New York state.”
The Nobel Prize committee said that the combination of the advancements of Frank, Henderson and Dubochet helped to make electron beam imaging what it is today.
“Following these discoveries, the electron microscope’s every nut and bolt have been optimized,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its announcement. “In the past few years, scientific literature has been filled with images of everything from proteins that cause antibiotic resistance, to the surface of the Zika virus. Biochemistry is now facing an explosive development and is all set for an exciting future.”