By Andrew Cluley
2014 Nobel Prize Winner, Dr. Eric Betzig returned to Pioneer High School today as the keynote speaker at the school’s third annual end-of-the-year celebration and recognition assembly. Betzig congratulated students being honored for achievements during the school year, but encouraged them to focus on what made the awards possible. “It’s great that people are getting awards here today, but it’s the work that went into the award that you should celebrate, not the award itself,” Betzig said.
That even goes for the Nobel Prize in chemistry Betzig received last year, which the 1978 Pioneer graduate told students isn’t the most important work of his career. Betzig was recognized for the development of super-resolved flouresence microscopy about 15 years ago, but has since developed new microscope technology that he expects to have even greater benefits.
Betzig told Pioneer students they are privileged to attend the school, and should consider what they really want to do in life and be passionate about whatever they choose. “Whether it’s science, cooking, rap music, whatever you want to do. Put everything into it because nothing is better than hard work and even when you fail don’t give up, find something else or try again. The purpose of the passion is to make it so the hard work is easy, and to get you over those times when you are really down and you think that it’s time to give up,” Betzig said.
Passion and hard work weren’t always enough for Betzig. “I think what my story shows is that you cannot be afraid to fail. I failed big time, twice before we finally got to a success, and I don’t even regard that as maybe that great of a success,” he said.
In the 1990’s Betzig quit his job at Bell Labs and left science entirely without a back-up plan. Eventually he returned to Michigan to work for his father’s business, the Ann Arbor Machine Company. After about seven years he quit that job too, because he was unable to sell a device he created that used hydraulics to move items weighing four tons precise distances.
Even in these failures Betzig advised there is an important lesson. “I still felt good because I knew I gave everything I had, and that’s the way you should feel everyday about the work you do as you leave Pioneer,” he said.
When he graduated from Pioneer, Betzig thought it was an average school until he went to Cal Tech for his undergraduate degree. Then he quickly realized Pioneer was anything but average. “It wasn’t just the science I was able to learn here, the history taught me a lot about human nature that as a naïve teenager I didn’t realize. All of the stuff about having to read, you know “Crime and Punishment” and stuff like that which I hated, but having to write essays and looking into the symbolism and all of that made me a great writer. Made me competitive and much more competitive than my peers in the field so that I’ve been able to succeed and a lot because of the entire foundation of what Pioneer supplied for me,” He said.