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Novel ideas about tumor viruses


The lab and students at Harvard
James Watson Scientist
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My lab really took off once we had the basic principles of protein synthesis. It was messenger RNA. You could make proteins in vitro, you could essentially do biochemistry, protein synthesis, with the help of genetics. And so, beginning in 1961, I think that’s when Mario Capecchi became my graduate student, so for a couple of years I got a couple of students a year, instead of say one. And, by ’65, we were sort of in the top three or four places, Fitz Lipmann’s lab and Dan Nathan’s, Cambridge was, emphasis was in Sydney Brenner in genetics, not biochemistry. So, and, so we essentially began to do biochemistry as well as molecular biology, and mixing them together, and because Louis had never put my name on, I’ve never put his name on any of my papers, I just went along with it that way. And I think it motivated the students and Wally Gilbert when he came on board in ’62, ’61, so by ’65, we were, you know, we could have said we were the best place in the world. Sidney would disagree, but you know, it depended, we were, sort of, intermediate between Arthur Kornberg which was everything in enzymology, and Cambridge. So we were trying to do some biochemistry as well, and I never knew any but my students seemed to pick it up very well, and we were in advanced degrees, higher degrees in biochemistry, but Mario I think was in biophysics. So, you know, it didn’t matter much.
Does it bother you that you’re not connected to your progeny, because when you’re gone and they’re gone, who will know that Capecchi was your student?
Oh, certainly Mario will put it out. He was interesting, you know, he left, he took all his creations he seemed absolutely, a total lack of affection, and he told me, you should never expect gratitude from your students, instantaneously, you know, if they’re really just focused on themselves, which is probably the best, you know, hope that they get gratitude when they’re 50. And that’s sort of how it became the case of Mario, you know, he really thought back, well, he wouldn’t be where he was, if I hadn’t given him all these opportunities. And, so I think it’s best, you know, that students who are highly competitive to try and promote their own queries. Now I know people worked closely together, they weren’t really in any, ever got the sense they were, one was trying to push the other down, but they were all trying to push themselves. I think that’s the main thing, and out of my total of 25 students, about five were people that I took on because Meselson or someone else didn’t want them, and I didn’t want them totally thrown out, and I took them on. And with one exception they weren’t very good. You know, they, but of my, the 20, I think there was a success rate of about 17 or 18 and later, good jobs in academia. By good jobs I mean Cornell, Iowa, you know, universities where you yourself could remain a scientist. So, they almost all were being scientists, I think, until the end.

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: Martin Raff Walter Gratzer

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



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

Duration: 4 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010