Co-Creator of Expansion Microscopy Wins Prestigious Hertz Foundation Thesis Award

May 30, 2017

Tillberg is the first Thesis Prize winner whose advisor, Ed Boyden, also won the Hertz Thesis Prize


LIVERMORE, CA – May 30, 2017 –The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering America’s most brilliant minds in science, mathematics and engineering, today announced Paul Tillberg as the recipient of the Foundation’s annual Thesis Prize. Paul helped create expansion microscopy, which enables complex biological systems to be imaged with nanoscale precision and has the potential to revolutionize the use of microscopy. Working with his advisor Ed Boyden, a Hertz Fellow and previous Thesis Prize winner, and Fei Chen, the team developed a simple procedure that can make any microscope a super-resolution microscope.

“We were initially drawn to extending the capabilities of super-resolution microscopy methods developed in the past decade, but then realized there was the potential to approach the problem in an entirely different way,” said Tillberg, Hertz Fellow and current fellow at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “We thought it would be incredible if we could physically expand the sample, rather than change the microscope, and landed on using a swellable material. When synthesized throughout the specimen, the material can expand the tissue four to five times the original size while preserving relative positions.”

Expansion microscopy (ExM) works by synthesizing a swellable polymer network–the same polymer found in baby diapers–within a specimen to subsequently expand the sample, resulting in physical magnification. By covalently anchoring specific labels located within the specimen directly to the polymer network, labels spaced closer than the optical diffraction limit can be isotropically separated and optically resolved. This process can be used to perform scalable super-resolution microscopy with diffraction-limited microscopes. For example, ExM made it possible to scan large chunks of mouse brain tissue with nanoscale precision. ExM can potentially be used for both academic and medical research, to study specific diseases, and eventually may even be a diagnostic tool. Paul’s thesis is titled “Expansion Microscopy: Improving Imaging Through Uniform Tissue Expansion."

Paul Tillberg

Hertz Fellow Paul Tillberg with an expanded slice of mouse brain viewed. Strong, directed illumination helps to see the expanded tissue clearly by eye. Photo credit: McGovern Institute and Justin Knight

Expansion microscopy has the potential to help answer a lot of questions in biology and medicine and it would not have been created without Paul’s contributions,” said Boyden, Hertz Fellow, professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab and co-director of the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering. “Paul’s curiosity about the world around us is one of his great strengths—and that shared curiosity and desire to help improve our world is one of the reasons I love to work with other Hertz Fellows.

Paul was awarded the Hertz Fellowship in 2010 and earned his PhD in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied technology development for neuroscience. He took a unique route to that achievement, having first earned a bachelor's of arts in comparative literature with a minor in music composition from the University of Southern California. After earning his BA, he traveled to India to teach English at the Norbulingka Institute for Tibetan Culture in the foothills of the Himalayas. When determining what career he wanted to pursue, Paul realized academic research in engineering offered a synthesis of all of the things he valued: the intellectual rigor of studying physical systems, participation in the endeavor to continually advance our knowledge of the world and the opportunity to apply scientific insights to develop new technology that improves human wellbeing. He enrolled at a community college, transferred to the University of California at Berkeley and earned a dual bachelor's of science in electrical engineering and materials science.

“We are delighted to recognize Paul’s groundbreaking work with the team at MIT as this year’s Thesis Prize winner,” said Robbee Baker Kosak, president, the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. “The Foundation’s mission is to support PhD students who are tackling difficult, real-world problems in applied science, math and engineering. Paul’s thesis work is extraordinarily important and does exactly that. We are excited to see what he achieves next in his research endeavors.”

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering America’s most brilliant minds, awards the Hertz Foundation Thesis Prize each year to one Fellow that achieves overall excellence and pertinence to high-impact applications of the physical sciences. Established in 1981, Tillberg is the 60th recipient of the Prize and the first Prize winner whose advisor is a previous Prize winner—Ed Boyden was awarded the Thesis Prize in 2006.

Ed attended Stanford University, where he earned his PhD in neuroscience. He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology group at MIT and was awarded the “Breakthrough Prize” in 2015 for the development and implementation of optogenetics, a technique that allows scientists to control neurons by shining light on them. It has been used by scientists around the world to reveal brain circuitry with normal neural function as well as disorders such as depression and autism. Ed is an active researcher, in-demand speaker and has received multiple awards and honors. 

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation is a not-for-profit organization changing the world around us by granting freedom of American scientific research and innovation through fellowship and financial support. Celebrating 60 years in 2017, the Hertz Fellowship is the most exclusive fellowship program in the world. Our 1,200 Hertz Fellows are the leaders, shapers and disruptors of American science, engineering and mathematics. For more information on the Hertz Foundation and the innovations led by our Hertz Fellows please visit