Faculty focus on Holger Müller

Holger Müller successfully applied for his first patent when he was 14. Later, he did his undergraduate thesis with Jürgen Mlynek at the University of Konstanz, Germany. He graduated from Humboldt-University, Berlin, with Achim Peters as his advisor. Müller received a fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt foundation and joined the group of Steven Chu in Stanford as a postdoc. In July 2008, he joined the physics faculty at UC Berkeley. His lab’s research has been advancing atomic, molecular, and optical physics to probe nature at the utmost sensitivity.

QB3-Berkeley: Your lab utilizes electron microscopy; do you use any QB3-Berkeley core facilities like Cal-Cryo@QB3-Berkeley to conduct research?

Holger Müller: We’re not formal users of Cal-Cryo@QB3-Berkeley, but I’m indebted to everyone who works there for supporting us for such a long time. Because I’m a physicist by training and not a biologist, so I’m not trained to use electron microscopes in biology. The fact that somebody like me can do work like that is unique about Berkeley; people have been helping us behind the scenes without me even knowing about it, and sometimes I only found out about the help a year later. This is a wonderful part of the research environment at UC Berkeley.

QB3: Could you please tell us about any forthcoming papers or current projects that your lab is working on?

HM: We’re working the development of phase-plates, a technology to improve the contrast and signal-to-noise ratio in electron microscopy. The paper we have in the pipeline is  two thirds written or so. It is about a physics effect that limits the resolution of the microscope and how we can overcome it. I wanted it to come out earlier in the fall semester, but things always take longer.

QB3: What is the biggest challenge and greatest reward of running your own lab?

HM: That’s a good one. Both the biggest challenge and the greatest reward, if you are successful, is creating a quality environment for people to do their best work in. Of course, the real world is rarely ideal. But in the best-case scenario, trainees’ work is of high quality, people are happy to do the work, and the work that they do benefits their careers and benefits science. So, the greatest challenge is to make that happen. And sometimes it doesn’t work, and you have to try again.

QB3: What’s something that you wish someone would ask you about your work?

HM: My favorite question is always: How can I help you? Ha! And I’m fortunate that that question has been asked by many people. Berkeley has an excellent community of researchers. For example, we hope that our phase-plate development will be important for any field where transmission electron microscopy is being applied. And I hope we can be helpful if people ask me, Can I use your technology to do x? Or: I have some specimens; can I use your technology? Unfortunately, we have often been the bottleneck … sometimes people come to us with great ideas, but we are just upgrading the microscope. So, we might not be able to help right now but hopefully we’ll be able to in the future.

QB3: What do you enjoy most about working with trainees?

HM: I will say two things: It is rewarding to observe the growth of individual people. But it is even more rewarding when you see that individuals grow into a well-functioning team. If you see them as people—and not just trainees or researchers—they stand up for each other and have each other’s backs.

QB3: What do you like best about working at Berkeley and being part of QB3-Berkeley?

HM: The answer for both parts of the question is almost the same. What I love about Berkeley is the fact that this entire project I’m working on is a collaboration between the Departments of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB), as well as researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Collaborations like this are formed all the time at UC Berkeley. Many such collaborations are not even formed by us faculty members but instead are formed by students. They might meet at lunch and talk, and then something happens between them to get a collaboration started. Our fields also no longer have strong boundaries in the traditional sense: Does a particular project belong to Physics? Or MCB? Or is it part of QB3-Berkeley or LBNL? It doesn’t matter. We want to do the work and we’ll find a way to do it. I’m honored to be part of QB3-Berkeley because again, I’m not a biologist by training; I might be one of the people within QB3-Berkeley who knows the least about biology, but everybody here is willing to help, which is what makes this work—and these collaborations—happen.