With these plans in mind, he peddled his idea from door to door – as he would often do over the next twelve years, never more than a hair’s breadth from dropping out of science. “But I always thought of it as fun. I was still relatively young and I thought: Well, if it doesn’t work, at least I will have tried.” But the conditions were not exactly in his favor. Physics at that time was more interested in elementary particles and solid states than it was in optics. Ironically, the German Research Council (DFG) had even just initiated a project to develop new microscopy procedures for use in biology. Hell, however, had no chance, not even with his doctorate in physics. With no laboratory and no mentor, he did not meet the criteria required for applicants.
“I really had no opportunity for development here in Germany,” says Stefan Hell. He managed to obtain a postdoc grant from the DFG that enabled him to demonstrate the principles of 4Pi microscopy at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg to the point that he was able to publish some initial measurements, but that seemed to be the end of the road. In the end, it was the Finns who showed some interest. A Finnish friend from the EMBL was in contact with a professor who was experimenting with fluorescence microscopy for use in medical diagnostics. It was here that Hell laid the foundations for an entirely new field of research. He formulated the concept of STED microscopy and showed, through his initial experiments, that overcoming Abbe’s limit is physically viable.
But even in Finland he felt constrained. He needed more independence. The money ran out, so he went knocking on doors once again, from one German university or institute to the next. Finally Tom Jovin, at that time Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, noticed him, and saw in him a young and promising scientist who matched the profile of the institute. After an in-depth examination, he was put in charge of an Independent Junior Research Group.
Göttingen felt like paradise to Stefan Hell. “I basically had no idea how much support and freedom were possible at Max Planck.” At last he also had the right interdisciplinary environment in which to construct the microscope and to demonstrate, together with his colleagues, that it really works. In 1999/2000, they finally and impressively broke the diffraction limit, with a sixfold improvement in resolution. “But neither NATURE nor SCIENCE wanted to publish it,” Hell regrets. Initially, only insiders recognized and appreciated the results. Without a single publication in a high-profile journal, Hell lacked credibility in the eyes of German universities. And with Independent Junior Research Groups at the Max Planck Society limited to five years, the universities would be his next port of call.
Then one day Kings College in London asked Hell to give a presentation. He knew that candidates were being considered for an important professorship at the time, but after nearly 30 failed applications, he didn’t seriously think he had a chance. Following the presentation, the dean kindly invited him to dinner, then added: “We have decided to offer you the job!” Hell thought he had heard incorrectly. However, the academics in London apparently knew just who and what they wanted. They had commissioned headhunters to fill the vacant chair and already had a good idea of who they were dealing with. The terms of his appointment were due to be negotiated the following morning.
The fact that he turned down their attractive offer, along with eight others that he would soon receive from Germany and abroad, was due to the Max Planck Society. “Almost at the last minute they said to me, we want you to stay here,” Hell explains. And in fact he, too, wanted to stay. And so, con trary to the usual procedure, he was promoted from head of a Junior Research Group to Director at the Institute in Göttingen.