'I was very bad in school:' Swiss Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 winner

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'I was very bad in school:' Swiss Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 winner
One of the three winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Swiss scientist Jacques Dubochet. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

Switzerland's latest Nobel laureate said he had to overcome a fear of the dark, and a poor record in school, before reaching the apex of science.


"Since I was a child I wanted to become a scientist," Dubochet told Swiss public broadcaster RTS in an interview. The Swiss Nobel laureate, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 with two others, said however that he struggled in school.

In fact: "I was very bad in school," Dubochet told RTS. The scientist adds that a teacher diagnosed him as dyslexic when he was "about to fail in high school." 

This intervention helped Dubochet continue through school and the scientist credited the canton of Vaud's education structures for that support. 

But even before Jacques Dubochet went to to school or later embarked on the research that earned him a Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday October 4th, he made a discovery at age five that helped him overcome a common, yet powerful fear.

The retired professor of biophysics and the University of Lausanne has been honoured, with two others, for developing a simpler and better method for imaging tiny, frozen molecules.

But, according to his CV posted on the university website, his first notable achievement happened in 1946 when he became "no longer afraid of the dark".

"Because the sun comes back; it was Copernicus who explained this," his CV says. That breakthrough came five years after he was "conceived by optimistic parents" in 1941, the CV adds.

It also noted that his "experimental scientific career" began before the age of 10, using instruments that included "knives, needles, strings, matches". The visibly elated 75-year-old Dubochet told journalists in Lausanne that teamwork was key to his scientific successes, hours after winning the award with Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson.

"In our group it was a necessary requirement that one has to be able to collaborate," said Dubochet, who described himself as dyslexic.

"I hate personal competition and so each time in my career I came in a field where it was highly competitive I gave up".

The Nobel Chemistry Committee honoured the group for cryo-electron microscopy, explaining that it allowed researchers to now "routinely produce three-dimensional structures of biomolecules".

Dubochet's key contribution was discovering in the 1980s how to cool water so quickly that it solidifies in liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the molecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.

He told reporters that despite his lofty achievements he was never very good in school and that a main part of his career has been exploring the work of others.

"Rather big part of my time is to read scientific journals and to discover what others are doing," he said. "Reading science seriously... there are so many possibilities".

READ MORE: Lausanne University professor wins Nobel Prize for chemistry


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