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And The Nobel Prize For Facilitating Scientific Discovery Goes To: The Minivan

Suzanne Greenwald: "This is modern science that matters. Once frumpy, the minivan is busting out of the suburbs, big-time." (Honda/AP)
Suzanne Greenwald: "This is modern science that matters. Once frumpy, the minivan is busting out of the suburbs, big-time." (Honda/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

I always knew the minivan would have its day. I just never figured it would be courtesy of a Nobel Prize.

The recent announcement that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to scientists involved in “the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy” inspired not only an image upgrade for the microscope, molecules and protein pathways, but also for the scientific journey itself — and the minivan.

What comes to mind when you think of a minivan? Scientific breakthroughs, or suburban soccer carpools? Nobel Prizes, or Cheerios ground fine into the crevices of car seats and carpets like so much Saharan Desert dust?

That's right. A minivan!

Not a Maserati. Not a Mercedes. Not even a Volkswagen Bug with Free to be You and Me flower power decals. But the humble and up-until-now, unsung, minivan.

Pop Quiz: What comes to mind when you think of a minivan?

Scientific breakthroughs, or suburban soccer carpools?

Nobel Prizes, or Cheerios ground fine into the crevices of car seats and carpets like so much Saharan Desert dust?

As the story goes, the now newly-minted Nobel laureate Eric Betzig and his lab mates from The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia packed up their nanoscope — a breakthrough in microscope technology — in search of real world scientific application. User feedback was the name of the game. What mysteries were molecular biologists hoping to solve, and how might a nanoscope help them see them?

What better way to answer these questions than through a good old-fashioned, pack-up-your-nanoscope-and-a-change-of-socks road trip? Their destination: Woods Hole, Massachusetts, home of the world-class Marine Biological Laboratory, or MBL, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago. Cellular research by-the-sea.

What the scientists accomplished was surely worthy of science’s biggest prize — surpassing the known limits of technology to offer front row seats to molecules in action via one super-powered light microscope. But what I think makes Betzig and his colleagues truly worthy of the Nobel Prize is the way their story wakes up the scientific traveler in us all.

So with Woods Hole on the horizon, off the Nobel Prize crusaders drove into Cape traffic in their chariot of choice, a minivan.

Oh, to be a fly on that road trip to Woods Hole.

One can only imagine Betzig and his teammates cursing the “stop-and-go” over the Bourne, power windows rolled down, wind in their hair, perhaps singing along to Coldplay’s The Scientist at the top of their lungs, heeding the call of Nobel Prize-winning work in their devil-may-care, four-door, eight-cup holder minivan.

It was a workshop on wheels. One can imagine the scientists, sleeves rolled up on their Cape Cod sweatshirts, fingers sticky from the apple bear claw from Pie in the Sky Bakery, popping the minivan’s trunk, tinkering with their invention, taking it apart and putting it back together based on feedback from real-world application at the MBL.

Betzig shares his honor with collaborators at Stanford and the Max Plank Institute in Heidelberg, Germany. Doesn’t the minivan deserve a piece of the Prize, too?

What’s trending? Tricked out trunks with nanoscope parts. Special carpool lanes for chemistry labs. “Future Nobel Prize Winner on Board” bumper stickers. Fast Passes for Physicists.

Picture it: A Nobel Prize-winning minivan, blazing scientific trails from the venerable research institutes of Virginia to the shores of Cape Cod.

Huddle around, Honda. Make a mental note, MIT. This is modern science that matters. Once frumpy, the minivan is busting out of the suburbs, big-time. What’s trending? Tricked out trunks with nanoscope parts. Special carpool lanes for chemistry labs. “Future Nobel Prize Winner on Board” bumper stickers. Fast Passes for Physicists.

We salute you, Betzig and teammates. You've pushed boundaries beyond our microscopic fields of vision, sharpened our image of the molecule, elevated the power and purpose of the minivan, and focused our attention on the timeless importance of the scientific journey.

Because of you, we see the road ahead more clearly now.


Related:

Suzanne Greenwald Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Suzanne Greenwald, Ph.D. is a writer, college/career advisor, and the co-author of “Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads,” as well as the upcoming book, “Career 2.0."

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