Nobel Laureate Joachim Frank

“I wanted to do it differently”

As a TUM doctoral student, Joachim Frank and his mentor argued about how biological molecules could be depicted. At the beginning of December 2017, Joachim Frank was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing cryo-electron microscopy.


At 5:18 a. m. local time on October 4, the call came from Stockholm and woke Joachim Frank up from sleep. “The man at the other end of the line had an unmistakable Swedish accent. I immediately became aware of the importance of the call – it was an exciting moment for me,” says Joachim Frank. The professor at Columbia University in New York completed his PhD at TUM in 1970. Together with Jacques Dubochet and Richard Henderson, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017 for his pioneering work on the development of cryo-electron microscopy.

If I were to confine myself to science alone, a great many things in the world would pass me by.

Since early this morning, Joachim Frank has been in the spotlight: “I am almost celebrated like a rock star. This is very unusual and sometimes a bit embarrassing for me, but I generally enjoy it,” says the 77-year-old, describing his new role as the recipient of the world’s most prestigious science prize. Winning the Nobel Prize has also afforded him more freedoms: “I no longer have to take on all academic responsibilities,” says Frank, who writes fictional texts and a blog in his spare time. He had always felt the impulse to express himself outside of science. “If I were to confine myself to science alone, a great many things in the world would pass me by.”

For him, the Nobel Prize is a great recognition of forty years of scientific work, the success of which was often uncertain. His doctoral studies in Munich were also marked by great uncertainty for a long time: “I first had to find my way, but I was able to do it step by step,” says the native of Siegerland. Together with his mentor and doctoral supervisor, Walter Hoppe, a X-ray crystallographer who had developed an interest in electron microscopy, he argued about the correct procedure for depicting molecules. “In his process, the molecules observed were always burned. I wanted to do it differently,” says Joachim Frank. He pursued the idea that one sample contains millions of copies of a molecule. “I wanted to develop a technology to calculate a detailed structure from many two-dimensional images taken by the electron microscope.”

Vogelperspektive auf das gut gefüllte Konserthuset in Stockholm.

The Nobel Prizes are traditionally conferred in the Konserthuset, the concert hall in Stockholm, in the presence of the royal family. King Gustav himself presents the popular medal and the certificate (Photo: Alexander Mahmoud/ Nobel Media AB).

Friendships and trips on the River Isar

He remembers back to his eventful days in Munich with pleasure: “I went to concerts, made friends, set up an interdisciplinary circle with other students, made trips in the Isar and a great deal more”. After completing his doctorate, Joachim Frank went to the USA on a scholarship. It was the beginning of a whole new life: “I have come to appreciate the much greater openness in the science community in the USA,” he says today. When a generous offer came in 1975 from an institute in Albany, he did not hesitate for long. Joachim Frank is Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University since 2008, and now has an American passport.

At the beginning of December, Joachim Frank undertook one of his most important trips to Europe. The Nobel Prizes are traditionally awarded at the Konserthuset, the Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden. Frank was awarded the medal with Alfred Noble’s portrait on it and the corresponding certificate by King Gustav of Sweden in person. And how did he feel when he was on this important stage? “It was almost like a fairy tale,” says the newly named Nobel Laureate.