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Deciding to be a scientist


Studying behavior and genetics as an undergraduate
James Watson Scientist
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I would have probably... if I'd gone to Cornell and which wouldn't have probably been the right place when I got there and wanted to study some form of behavior. You know, I've been searching for a David Lack or something like... the center of animal behavior... then, you know, if it wasn't Germany, it was Oxford. And that interested me and I certainly was... my advisor to the University of Chicago, Herluf Strandskov, who was a Scandinavian. He studied twins. He was a human geneticist. So the idea that the nature/nurture dilemma would be resolved from twin studies and, you know, how birds can migrate and end up on oceanic islands, just seemed so... that there was an answer out there and, you know, the answer was never God. It was somehow the brain had been programmed.

[Q] But the gene... how did you get to genes from...? So, do you think you entered the University of Chicago knowing that you interest would be genetics or did something happen?

Yes, I'm sure in high school I'd heard the word in biology 'Mendel'. And Mendel's Laws and then at the University of Chicago, in one of the biology survey course, they taught Mendel. But it was purely as the... and it wasn't until my junior year that I took... I didn't take the course, because I wasn't a graduate student, but I went to the lectures of Sewall Wright on physiological genetics, and I'm sure I heard of Beadle and Tatum because that was '46 and Sewall Wright was very interested in gene action, and I'm sure I heard of Avery and the transformed principle, while a junior at Chicago. And I'd read Schrödinger's book in my junior year, What is Life?

[Q] Now, this was in a course or were you on your own reading this?

That was my own. There was a... in a Chicago Sun Book Review Schrödinger's book was reviewed, and I went to the library. So no teacher told me to read it, and at that stage I was in my third year, I was only taking ecology courses, but I had become friends with the teaching assistants in these zoology courses. They were graduate students, and at least one of them was a graduate student of Sewall Wright. So... and Sewall Wright was regarded as one of Chicago's great professors and he was a population geneticist but he was also interested in gene action and studied coat color in guinea pigs. He had been doing that in the '20s, and so he was... so I became aware that, you know, the real problem was... at the chemical level. And certainly, I'd heard of Linus Pauling when I was an undergraduate, I don't know why. In those... you know, it would have been the potential article, you know, in Time magazine or maybe even in Life magazine. Life magazine was very important in growing up, you know, just the pictures and what Henry Luce said and his people thought important. And, you know, compared to today's journalism, it was pretty good.

[Q] So what I... I'm still having trouble the fact that you were able to latch onto the gene as a young...

Oh, it was very much the need to replace God.

[Q] Okay.

You know, if I had been religious, there would have been no reason.

American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.

Listeners: Walter Gratzer Martin Raff

Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Tags: University of Chicago, What is Life?, Time, Life, Herluf Strandskov, Sewall Wright, Erwin Schrödinger, Linus Pauling, Henry Luce

Duration: 5 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010