Virginia Tech®home

J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series

J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series

Physics student helps build satellite
A male Passerini’s tanager, Ramphocelus passerinii, eats the fruit of Piper sancti-felicis. Photo by Bernadette Wynter Rigley.

 The College of Science

premiere lecture series

Upcoming Lecture

Ronald D. Vale, Ph.D.

Vice President of Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Executive Director of Janelia Research Campus


The World’s Smallest Machines


Thursday, September 29, 2022
7:30 p.m. EDT





man rests arms on railing and smiles at camera
Alison Yin/AP Images for Howard Hughes Medical Institute 2019

The world’s smallest machines

Ron Vale, Janelia Research Campus

Look around at living organisms. What do you see? They are moving. Birds fly, lions pounce, and football players dash across the field. Movement is a fundamental property of biological organisms. Now look under a microscope. Pond water is full of unicellular organisms that swim and twirl in all directions. Let’s crank up the magnification further and look inside of a cell. Tiny packets of building blocks called organelles are moving everywhere, functioning like cargo trucks that deliver goods within a city. Even the yeast that make beer move have to move their DNA when they divide. Where does all of this movement come from? Machines. Machines that that, like your car, convert chemical energy into motion. But compared to your car engine, these biological protein-based machines are 100 million smaller. And they are more efficient. A typical car operates at ~15% efficiency while biological motors are 50-99% efficient. I will discuss the molecular motors drive biological motion. These motors drive muscle contraction, the beating of cilia in your lungs and flagella of sperm, and the movement of materials inside of cells. I will tell you about my discovery of one of these machines (called kinesin), describe how these machines work, and discuss why they are important for medicine and biotechnology.


Ronald D. Vale is a Vice President of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Executive Director of its Janelia Research Campus. Dr. Vale received his Ph.D. in Neurosciences from Stanford University in 1985, was a Staff Fellow with the NIH stationed at the Marine Biological Laboratory in 1985-6 and began his faculty appointment in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco in 1987.

Vale is involved in several activities that benefit the scientific community. He founded iBiology, a non-profit organization that produces videos of scientific talks by leading scientists and makes them freely available. Vale founded XBio (The Explorer’s Guide to Biology), a new type of learning resource of undergraduate biology. He founded ASAPbio, a non-profit organization, to improve scientific publishing in the life sciences. He founded IndiaBioscience, a networking organization for the life sciences in India. Vale founded the annual Young Investigator Meeting for young Indian scientists. He previously co-directed the MBL Physiology Course for five years and founded/directed the Bangalore Microscopy Course. Vale’s laboratory developed free, open-source software for light microscopy (MicroManager). He served as President of the American Society of Cell Biology and chaired an NIH study section. Vale co-founded the biotech companies Cytokinetics, Faze, and Myeloid Therapeutics.

Vale received the Canada Gairdner International Award the Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research, the Shaw Prize in Life Sciences, the Massry Prize, the Wiley Prize, and the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Molecular Biology Organization, and the Indian National Science Academy.

Past Lectures

Loading player for


From SyFy and Marvel Comics to Superstring Theory, Evolution, and the CMB


Discovery of Pulsars: A Graduate Student’s Story


Generating High-Intensity, Ultrashort Optical Pulses


The Importance of Global Scientific Engagement

About the series

The J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series in the College of Science at Virginia Tech is a forum for the exchange of new and innovative ideas in scientific fields. The series has attracted national and world-renowned scholars, including a laser physicist, a nanoscientist, an astrophysicist (and also Nobel Laureate), an applied mathematician, the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and a statistician who specializes in machine-learning. Discussions have delved into brain sciences, speech and hearing development, black holes, and more.

Generously supported by Mark and Debi Sowers, this series provides opportunities for the university community and general public to interact with and learn from eminent scholars and industry experts. Sowers is a Richmond, Virginia-based businessman and developer and longtime supporter of the College of Science. He sponsors the series to share with others his fascination with the sciences, in particular, physical science.

All talks are free and open to the public.

For more information:

Contact Jenny Orzolek, Senior Director of Major Gifts for Advancement | 540-231-5643