2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Joachim Frank, PhD

For weeks, a new dog had been waking up P&S faculty member Joachim Frank early each morning, but during Nobel Week 2017, a ringing telephone was his wakeup call. He was sharing the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, he was told by the caller. “All I could say over and over again was ‘This is wonderful news.’ I didn’t know anything else to say.”

The attention from news media, Columbia colleagues, and fellow scientists continued throughout that day—Oct. 4—and into the next, when standing ovations, cell phone photos, and requests for autographs greeted him at a festive celebration in the Wu Auditorium in the Vagelos Education Center. An overflow crowd watched and listened as colleagues congratulated Dr. Frank and shared anecdotes about his love of science.

Photo: Jörg Meyer

Dr. Frank is professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics with a primary appointment at P&S and a secondary appointment as professor of biological sciences. He is the third P&S researcher to win the prize since 2000.

Dr. Frank shared the Nobel Prize for helping to pioneer the development of cryo-electron microscopy, a technique used to reveal the structures of large biological molecules at atomic resolution. Using this technique, Dr. Frank has made important discoveries about how ribosomes—the protein-producing “factories” of the cell—function.

Several Columbians spoke at the Oct. 5 celebration and attended a reception that followed. Fellow Nobel Prize winners Richard Axel, MD, University Professor, and Eric Kandel, MD, University Professor and Kavli Professor of Brain Science, praised Dr. Frank’s contributions and gave advice on how to survive the newfound stardom that accompanies a Nobel Prize.

Dr. Frank and the other 2017 Nobel in Chemistry recipients, Richard Henderson of Cambridge University and Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, developed the field of cryo-electron microscopy, in which powerful electron microscopes are used to more clearly study frozen biomolecules. Electron microscopes can reveal the fuzzy two-dimensional outlines of individual frozen molecules. Dr. Frank’s contribution was in devising methods that turn thousands of such images into a finely detailed three-dimensional image.

Increasing numbers of structural biologists now use cryo-electron microscopy—cryo-EM—to visualize larger and more complex molecules at atomic resolution. Scientists use the 3-D images to study how specific molecules cause human disease in hopes of designing more targeted drug treatments.

Dr. Frank was recruited to P&S in 2008 from the Wadsworth Center in Albany, a New York Department of Health public health laboratory, where he was senior research scientist and lab chief for 33 years and a longtime faculty member in biomedical sciences at the University of Albany. He called his move to Columbia a milestone in his career and he particularly thanked his students. “I wouldn’t be here without the incredible support of the very gifted students I have had the privilege to have with me and be able to train. My research associates have all contributed pieces of this immense puzzle.”

Dr. Frank’s Nobel is the 83rd received by a Columbia faculty member or alumnus, and he is the 22nd P&S faculty member or alumnus to receive the honor. 

Two recent awards affirm the importance of Dr. Frank’s work. He received the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences this year for innovation in techniques that advance scientific discovery; in 2014 he received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Both awards recognized his body of research that resulted in this year’s Nobel.

Dr. Frank was born in Germany and received a PhD degree in physics from the Technical University of Munich.

Dr. Frank is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Biophysical Society. He was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator from 1998 to 2017