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The best advice I can give you is to start a conversation with someone

Interview with Joachim Frank, Professor at Columbia University and Nobel laureate 2017 in Chemistry

Freiburg, Feb 13, 2024

Joachim Frank is a professor at Columbia University, where he researches in the field of molecular biophysics. In 2017 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with Richard Henderson and Jacques Dubochet for his contributions to the development of cryo-electron microscopy of single molecules. Frank’s research contributed significantly to the understanding of the structure and function of ribosomes. Frank studied physics at the University of Freiburg from 1960 to 1964. In June 2024, the Faculty of Biology at the University of Freiburg awarded Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Joachim Frank an honorary doctorate.

Photo: Klaus Polkowski

Prof. Dr. Sonja-Verena Albers, Dean of the Faculty of Biology, Joachim Frank and Kerstin Krieglstein, Rector of the University of Freiburg. Photo: Klaus Polkowski


Dr. Frank, why did you decide to study at the University of Freiburg?

Joachim Frank: The German universities at that time were not so specialised. The main reason for my decision was that I wanted to get as far away as possible from my hometown of Siegen. I wanted to live and study in a beautiful place - and I had heard a lot about Freiburg as a romantic city. My personal horizon was very narrow at the time.

What advice would you give students today?

A lot of my career path has stemmed from serendipitous moments, so I’ve discovered and learnt a lot of valuable things that I wasn’t originally looking for. Life is full of all kinds of random events and developments so it’s good to keep your eyes open and make the best of what happens. For example, if you do an experiment and it fails, then the experiment still contains a message of some kind. Or if you’re trying to solve a problem that you can’t get out of your mind, I find that even conversations about completely unrelated topics can contribute to the solution because they provide metaphors that allow me to think about the problem in a different way. “On the gradual completion of thoughts during speech” is the title of a very readable essay by Heinrich von Kleist, which also deals with this topic. So if you really want to solve a problem that you have been thinking about for a long time, the best advice I can give you is to start a conversation with someone. This can be anyone at all, even a non-expert. Such a conversation will help you think and formulate your thoughts.

How did your time in Freiburg influence your career?

During my time in Freiburg, I came into contact with exact research for the first time, with the whole idea of the scientific method. These experiences were definitely a foundation for my approach to science in general. But something else also happened during this time that would lead, indirectly, to my later interest in biology. I was nominated for the “German Academic Scholarship Foundation,” based solely on my exam results. At the time, Ludwig Genzel was my professor of experimental physics in Freiburg and he was responsible for my nomination for the foundation. Later, when I was in Munich, that brought me into contact with a whole circle of people. And they came from all kinds of disciplines, including biology, neurophysiology and so on. That was my first contact with the life sciences. I was really fascinated by it back then and learnt a lot about it. One of my friendships that continues to this day was with Wolf Singer, the neurophysiologist. Incidentally, the three of us who received the Nobel Prize in 2017 all have the same background: Richard Henderson, Jacques Dubochet and I all started out in physics, worked in biology and received the prize for chemistry together in 2017.

Where was your favourite place to study in Freiburg?

I remember that in maths we were a kind of team of four people who always worked together. We often sat in our tiny flats and tried to prove something for the next term paper. I can't remember doing anything on my own anywhere - in my memory of that time, I'm always doing something with other people.

When you think back to “Joachim the student,” what is your best memory?

I made a lot of trips to the Black Forest. And it was very important for me that I discovered the painter Paul Klee at that time. It was in a small bookshop where they had about 50 postcards of various of his works and I bought them all. I was very excited because I had discovered this artist for myself and stuck all the cards in an album. Since then, I have visited every single Paul Klee exhibition and bought many books about him. That’s why I associate Freiburg with Paul Klee, even though he actually comes from Bern.

Which contacts did you find to be most valuable?

I mentioned Ludwig Genzel, my Freiburg professor of experimental physics, earlier. My time in Freiburg was a long time ago, but I still remember him well. And the funny thing is that I met him again later by chance. That was during my time as a postdoc at Cornell University. The Department of Applied Physics was having a happy hour on Friday in Clark Hall, with donuts and coffee and so on - and suddenly he was standing there. He was a very tall man, so he stood out right away. I spoke to him and told him that I got to where I am now thanks to his support. I had a really, really nice conversation with him. That was back in 1972.

How do you view the University of Freiburg in the year 2030? What kind of future do you envision for it?

I have to say that I think the University of Freiburg is ahead of other universities when it comes to international relations. For example, the alumni associations abroad are relatively new for German universities, and the University of Freiburg has really encouraged that. I've been approached and invited to several events in New York City. Lately, I’ve really enjoyed speaking German again and getting back to my roots. The University of Freiburg’s international relationships with other institutions and its international network can help students broaden their horizons at an early stage of their careers. Also, my path of studying physics, working in biology and getting the prize in chemistry shows that the idea of traditional departments is dissolving to some extent. Interdisciplinary work could therefore become even more necessary in the future than it already is today. I also think that interpersonal contact is particularly important for teaching and should remain the most important part of the degree programme. I remember from my days as a student that I was particularly impressed by these big spectacles. When you are trained as a physicist, you experience these big demonstrations in undergraduate courses on experimental physics. And that brings me back to Ludwig Genzel, my teacher in experimental physics. For example, he had an assistant climb into a Faraday cage that was charged with 10000 volts. And I remember an experiment with a huge barrel filled with smoke. That was very exciting and impressive.

Joachim Frank’s book recommendations
Heinrich von Kleist:
Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden, Gutenberg Projekt.
Gedanken von Joachim Frank dazu:
Simon Winchester: 
Knowing what we know, Harper Collins 2023.
The Professor and the Madman, Harper Collins 2009.
Krakatoa, Harper Perennial 2013.

Joachim Frank’s favourite place in New York City
I have so many favourite places, but there is this one place in particular in Central Park near the big fountain. When you walk down the staircase, you can see a huge panorama with a lake, boats, a boathouse and a large fountain. Wherever the eye wanders, you have so many interesting things to see. It is a panorama like no other. And it's always cheerful. Some people are blowing these gigantic bubbles. Weddings take place there. And sometimes a soprano quartet performs in this underpass.