by Ariane Briegel
Not many scientists become legends, even fewer achieve this status during their own lifetime. However, Howard Berg was certainly one of them. He was undoubtedly an exceptional scientist that inspired a large cohort of students, postdocs, and peers.
Trained as a physicist, he became interested in bacterial motility early in his career and continued work on understanding this system at Harvard, the University of Colorado and Caltech. Building his own microscope, he was able to trace the movements of bacteria. He is most well-known for discovering that flagellated bacteria are propelled through their environment by a rotary motor. Howard also contributed greatly to our understanding of how bacteria navigate their environment by a biased random walk. He spent a long fruitful career uncovering the inner workings of bacterial motility by using his sharp intellect and self-built tools. Howard was not only an outstanding scientist but also an inspirational teacher and mentor. Anecdotes of his memorable live demonstrations which he used to convey his insights are legendary in the microbiological community. Until the end of his remarkable life he continued to actively pursue research and mentoring his lab members.
Howard increasingly became a living legend. For example, Howard's career became topic of a minireview by Michael Manson entitled "Howard's random walk through Biology." This insightful piece gives an overview of his scientific contributions as well as personal perspectives from several former lab members and colleagues. Another example is the 2021 "Bacterial Locomotion and Signal Transduction Meeting (BLAST)" that held its keynote session in Howard's honor.
Whenever Howard would attend a scientific event, he would be met with admiration and awe from the other attendees. While this reverence was certainly justified, it often masked his wonderful sense of humor. When I first met Howard, I was so incredibly intimidated by his light-speed thinking and deep scientific knowledge, that I barely managed to have a coherent conversation with him. But I quickly discovered his dry sense of humor. He could be wickedly funny while keeping a straight face, and only the sparkle in his eyes would give him away. He was already in his 80s when I started collaborating with Howard, and I even got one of his home-built devices to pursue our common research goals. I am grateful for his advice and mentorship when I was a new faculty and count myself very lucky to have briefly been able to work with him.
I am only one of many scientists that will deeply miss Howard, both as a wonderful human being as well as an inspiring scientist. He may be gone, but he will certainly not be forgotten. Many generations of scientists will build on Howard Berg's insights into the motility behavior of microbes.
You find the recordings of a two-part lecture by Howard Berg in the iBiology channel on YouTube; here is part 1 (31:33 min), and here part 2 (30:08 min).
Ariane is a professor at Leiden University in The Netherlands. Her lab focuses on investigating how microbes sense and respond to their environment and explores the structures and functions of the molecular complexes involved in these behaviors.