2015 – Katrin Willig

Dr. Katrin Willig, junior research group leader at the Center for Nanoscale Microscopy and Molecular Physiology of the Brain (CNMPB) with affiliation at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, Germany, is the recipient of the Lennart Nilsson Award 2015 for her groundbreaking contribution to the super-resolution microscopy of living cells. In her research she uses technology for studying cell structures at nanoscale to understand how our brains work.

Fluorescent Light Microscopy was long inhibited by the limited resolution caused by the light’s wavelength. The technology was revolutionised twenty years ago with the development of Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED), which enabled researchers to study living cells in tiniest molecular detail. The method involves using a laser beam to illuminate fluorescent molecules while a second customised laser beam deactivates parts of the fluorescence, leaving only a nano-sized area at the focal point that emits a signal. STED is one of the technologies collectively known as super-resolution microscopy. In 2014 Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing super-resolution fluorescence microscopy.

Katrin Willig, pioneered the use of fluorescent proteins for the nanoscale imaging of living cells. She has developed STED microscopy for imaging tissue inside living organs, known as Deep Tissue Imaging, and her special area of interest is the processes in the contact points between the nerve cells that are known as the synapses. She has demonstrated the strength of these technologies by in vivo-imaging inside a living mouse brain the tiny protrusions (dendritic spines) on the nerve cell dendrites found in the synapses, which are believed to be the basis of memory in the brain.

Katrin Willig studied Physics at Würzburg University before joining Stefan W. Hell’s research team at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. She graduated with a PhD in 2006 with a thesis on STED microscopy. Since 2014 she has been leading her own research team at the Göttingen Cluster of Excellence and DFG Research Center for Nanoscale Microscopy and Molecular Physiology of the Brain (CNMPB) at the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine in Göttingen.