Peter Kner – Q&A

Peter, on life in science

Editor’s Note: We asked each of the QSTORM investigators to respond to a set of questions we thought could help web visitors understand a little bit more about the personal side of working in science. These are Peter Kner’s responses.

Q. In what ways do you feel that you don’t fit the stereotype of a scientist?

I’ve taken a longer route to get where I am than many engineering professors. I took two years off between undergraduate and graduate school. I worked briefly for a fashion TV show in New York. Then I did an internship at DaimlerBenz in Stuttgart, Germany. After that I backpacked around Europe for 3 months. After graduate school, I worked for a startup in Silicon Valley for 5 years before returning to academia. It hasn’t been boring.

Q. Was there a particular person or life experience that caused your interest
in your area of expertise? Who and what?

I had a great teacher for AP physics in high school, Mr. Miklow (I’m not sure about the spelling). He was very laid back and very good at explaining the concepts.

Q. How would your friends describe you?

Everyone says I’m quiet.

Q. What are your main interests or hobbies outside of your work?

I like to hike and ski. I like to read and listen to music. And I like to play with my daughter. I haven’t skied too much in the last few years, but I went skiing in New Zealand last fall which was fantastic.

Q. What about your family?

My wife, Jocelyn, is doing her residency in pediatrics at Emory which pretty much takes up all her time. Our daughter Charlotte is almost five and just started taking dance lessons. And she’s into Mermaids.

Q. How you would describe your work to an 8 yr old?

I build microscopes. (That’s what I tell everybody.)

Q. What led you to this particular collaboration?

The super-resolution technique PALM/STORM was developed by three different research groups more or less simultaneously in 2006, and it has generated a lot of excitement because the resolution is almost a factor of 10 better than a conventional microscope, and the images are fantastic. At some point it occurred to me that if you could use this technique with quantum dots you could get really great resolution because they are so bright, and the resolution for this technique depends on the brightness. (I have no idea when the idea exactly showed up. Everyone always says that they have ideas in the shower, in the middle of the night, etc. I guess I wasn’t paying attention.) To use quantum dots for PALM/STORM, the quantum dots need to be switchable — you need to be able to turn the fluorescence on and off. I’m not a chemist so I can’t make even plain old quantum dots. Jessica was the only chemist at the IBIV workshop, and she makes quantum dots. I sat next to her one day at lunch and asked her if she could make them.

Q. How would you describe the goal of this collaboration in one sentence in non-technical terms. OK, maybe two sentences.

We want to get very high-resolution fluorescence images in living organisms.

Q. How do you hope this collaboration, if successful, will advance your research? (non-technical terms, 1-2 sentences).

A good conventional microscope has a resolution of about 250 nanometers, which isn’t great when you think about the size of a cell. Being able to get a resolution of better than 50 nm in a living organism would be really cool.

Q. Why should a non-scientist care about what the QSTORM team is trying to do?

A lot of important discoveries in biology have followed important technological advances. So I hope we’ll help answer some important questions.

Q. What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of the QSTORM project?

The project combines many difficult problems (QD development, STORM imaging, adaptive optics, preparing biological samples, etc). I think coordinating all these things will be really tough.

Q. How do you cope with the obstacles and failures along the way?

I try not to flip out.