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Three alumni win million euro Brain Prize

The 1 million euro Brain Prize has been awarded to four scientists – three of them Cornell alumni – for their groundbreaking work with two-photon microscopy: Winfried Denk, Ph.D. ’89, Karel Svoboda ’88, David Tank, M.S. ’80, Ph.D. ’83, and Arthur Konnerth. All three graduates – who studied math, physics and applied and engineering physics at Cornell – worked in the laboratory of Watt Webb, professor emeritus of applied and engineering physics, where multiphoton microscopy for biological applications was pioneered.

“These alumni embody the ‘Webb Group’ style of mixing physics, engineering and biology together to achieve their goal,” says Warren R. Zipfel, associate professor of biomedical engineering and a former Webb research associate. “For decades, Watt’s lab was the place to be at Cornell if you loved playing with lasers and optics and applying them to biological questions.”

Zipfel still has the world’s first two-photon microscope in a case near his office, built by Denk out of an early confocal microscope “scanbox.” Denk took the first two-photon microscopy images with the help of Frank Wise, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Engineering, who built the femtosecond laser needed to make two-photon microscopy work.

Solving the mystery of how circuits in the brain produce behavior, thoughts and feelings is one of the most important scientific frontiers in the 21st century. Two-photon microscopy is a transformative tool in brain research, combining advanced techniques from physics and biology to allow scientists to examine the finest structures of the brain in real time.

“We’re very proud of the work these alumni are doing,” says Lois Pollack, director and professor of applied and engineering physics. “They are examples for the next generation of students we are now training, who work at the interface between the life sciences and the physical, computational and engineering sciences.”

“These recipients of the Brain Prize reflect Cornell’s long history of fruitful collaborations across campus,” adds Andrew Bass, professor of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences and senior associate vice provost for research. “We know that the technological breakthroughs and discoveries needed to understand and combat neurological diseases and disorders will come from interdisciplinary interactions and ground-breaking discoveries in basic, fundamental science between neurobiologists, engineers, computational biologists, physicists and chemists.”

The Brain Prize, for scientists making an outstanding contribution to European neuroscience and who are still active in research, will be presented May 7 in Copenhagen by Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences. 

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