Emeritus Professor Alasdair McDowall AM

Emeritus Professor

Faculty of Science
+61 7 336 51888


Alasdair McDowall’s career started in the Pathology department of Moredun Institute, a UK veterinary research facility. He trained here in an animal pathology service and studied medical sciences specializing in histopathology. He set up and operated the early Siemens electron microscope in the department. A position in Pathology service at the Institute for Occupational Medicine brought his career into the human clinical arena of respiratory diseases where he continued his studies in medical sciences resulting in a Masters degree and Fellowship of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (FIBMS) UK

Alasdair McDowall received his Doctorate from the University of Sorbonne Paris VI. His thesis topic was the “Ultracryomicrotomy: a structural investigation at high resolution of untreated and fully hydrated cells and tissues for electron microscopy (cryoEM)”. This thesis was enhanced by the unique discovery in 1981 when Dubochet and McDowall reported the first vitrification of water at ambient pressures as seen in the electron microscope. In the years following this landmark result, Dr. McDowall and colleagues at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) pioneered seminal research in improved low temperature instrumentation and low dose observation techniques, which evolved into modern day molecular cryo-electron microscopy and the awarding of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dubochet, Henderson and Frank.

In 2003 he was awarded a prestigious joint appointment as an Institute of Molecular Bioscience principal research fellow and Node manager of this premier $10M cryo-microscopy unit in Australia, specializing in high resolution biological electron microscopy. Professor McDowall has over 50 peer reviewed publications and 60 conference proceedings in the field of cell ultrastructure and has co-organised/participated in >20 research technical workshops, he has co-authored his 3rd EMBO article, vitrification and cryosectioning for cryo electron microscopy. In 2008 he returned to the USA as a director of the Beckman Foundation microscopy resource and to manage Professor Jensen’s cryoEM tomography Lab at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. In addition, as director of the Caltech Beckman foundation resource for electron microscopy he was successful in securing a $1.0M award, 6 year renewal, in 2013. In 2013 and 2014 he was nominated for the California Institute of Technology Thomas W. SchmittAward. He rejoined the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Caltech in 2013, where he was responsible in the design, installation, and establishment of a new $15M cryo electron microscopy facility at Caltech.

Professor McDowall was an honored guest of the Swedish Academy of Sciences Nobel Foundation to attend the 2017 Nobel Prize Ceremonies and celebrations in recognition of his decades long contribution to cryo electron microscopy and his research partnership to Nobel Laureate Prof. Jacques Dubochet.

In recognition of Alasdair McDowall’s unique and integral contribution in the research leading to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Prof. Jacques Dubochet, presented Professor McDowall with a Swedish Academy of Sciences Nobel Medal awarded to Prof. Dubochet.

In 2018, Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland Prof. Peter Høj conferred the title of Professor Emeritus on Dr. McDowall.

Nominated Rotary STAR 2018: Outstanding humanitarian achievement in science and technology : Health and Medical

Appointed by HRH Queen Elizabeth II, in the 2019 Australian honours system, awarded Member (AM) of the Order of Australia.

For significant service to science, particularly in the field of electron microscopy, his research included performing key experiments that culminated in the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to his supervisor Professor Jacques Dubochet, and two of his colleagues, 2017”.

The Order of Australia is the pre-eminent means by which Australia recognizes the outstanding and meritorious service of its citizens. The award confers the highest recognition for outstanding achievement and service.

Research Impacts

“Cryo-electron microscopy the science method of the year 2016 changes all of our timelines on the future of health management. Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualise processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals.” Nobel Prize announcement 2017.

Dr Alasdair McDowall made the crucial experiment in the discovery of vitrification for Cryo EM. Vitrification is still the seminal first step used for preparing Cryo EM specimens for atomic imaging. Knowing the structure of a molecule reveals important information about how it functions and can provide insight into potential drug targets for fighting disease. In addition to making unprecedented advances in areas from our basic understanding of cellular processes to the development of new vaccines. Cryo EM may now routinely provide images of the atomic architecture of membrane proteins, ion channels, amino acid side chains, the building blocks of life. Providing access for designing better drugs to block, activate, and target improved therapies.


  • Institute of Medical Sciences, Institute of Medical Sciences
  • Doctor of Philosophy of Chemical and Structural Biology


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  • (2003) Doctor Philosophy

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Book Chapter

  • Pilhofer, Martin, Landinsky, Mark S. and McDowall, Alasdiar W. (2010). Bacterial TEM: new insights from cryo-microscopy. In Thomas Müller-Reichert, Leslie Wilson and Paul Matsudaira (Ed.), Electron microscopy of model systems (pp. 21-45) Burlington, MA United States: Academic Press. doi:10.1016/S0091-679X(10)96002-0

  • Dobro, Megan J., Melanson, Linda A., Jensen, Grant J. and McDowall, Alasdair W. (2010). Plunge freezing for electron cryomicroscopy. In Grant J. Jensen (Ed.), Cryo-EM, Part A: sample preparations and data collection (pp. 63-82) San Diege, CA, United States: Academic Press. doi:10.1016/s0076-6879(10)81003-1

  • Dobro, Megan J., Melanson, Linda A., Jensen, Grant J. and McDowall, Alasdair W. (2010). Plunge freezing for electron cryomicroscopy. In Methods in enzymology (pp. 63-82) London, United Kingdom: Elsevier. doi:10.1016/s0076-6879(10)81003-1

  • Dubochet, Jacques, Adrian, Marc, Chang, Jiin-Ju, Lepault, Jean and McDowall, Alasdair W. (1987). Cryoelectron microscopy of vitrified specimens. In Rudolf Alexander Steinbrecht and Karl Zierold (Ed.), Cryotechniques in biological electron microscopy (pp. 114-131) Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer . doi:10.1007/978-3-642-72815-0_5

  • Dubochet, Jacques, Adrian, Marc, Chang, Jiin-Ju, Lepault, Jean and McDowall, Alasdair W. (1987). Cryoelectron microscopy of vitrified specimens. In Cryotechniques in biological electron microscopy (pp. 114-131) Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-72815-0_5

Journal Article

Conference Publication

PhD and MPhil Supervision

Completed Supervision

  • (2003) Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

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