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Dangers in the lab? Tumor viruses


Changing working habits and more on students
James Watson Scientist
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During that time when things were going very, very well, I was writing my two books, “The Molecular Biology of the Gene”, so and I wrote them in my office; I didn’t write them at home. So, I was in the lab all the time, and I think that helps, you know. And people would know I was interested, but I didn’t come up every day and say, what have you done. You sort of figure if they’ve done something they will come and tell you, if they’ve got something. And if you have to ask people what they’re doing, you know, it’s a bad sign. And they took, you know, they took long weekends, they went to [?] in the White Mountains a lot when the summer would come. One summer they went off to Peru and places like that. So, they were an adventurous group, and much more relaxed today, than today. The summer was for having fun in those days. Now, the summer is indistinguishable from the rest of the year, and people work in, you know, I just say no-one should work in August, but they work in August. And, you know, it always amazed me, Bruce Alberts is a wonderful person, but he said didn’t want to go the coast of Miami, he wanted to work. He really viewed his students as working on his problems. He wasn’t creating independent students, they were Bruce’s extensions of his personality. And I don’t think he’s had many famous students.
Why do you think it’s changed now? Why are people working harder now?
Oh, harder to get grants. Many more people in the field, often you knew your competitor was taking off half the summer, or you were both going to a meeting in Europe and you knew everything was going to slow down, certainly in August. And less self confidence, but I mean, if the money is shorter and you’re totally confident, you can verge on being a fool. So, I’m not saying they have that much choice, but it was, sort of, sort of, you know, the impression of what I got in the summer of 1948 when I went to Cold Spring Harbor and began to see it, that’s our way of doing science. It went on till almost 1980, and then it was suddenly gene cloning, you know, once the regulations and everything, you could clone genes and money entered it because things had commercial, things, so people were rushing to get patents. Whereas in the early days, people were aware to the extent their competitor was just, who could do the science first, and not who could become rich. So, most of my friends, you know, didn’t become rich. I was the only one slightly above the others because I wrote two book, which, if I hadn’t been writing the books, I would have probably wanted to interfere more with my students. Yeah, trying, you know, ask, well, what have I done? Well, I haven’t published any papers, ideas, who remembers the conversation? But the books were, you know, really established me as not needing Francis Crick. We really done that, but people say, well, you didn’t need Francis Crick, but now you had Wally Gilbert, so you could still be, I had someone to make up for my inadequacies.
Do you think another reason that people work harder is the technology allows you to move faster and work 24 hours a day, because-
Yeah, you buy re-agents, you buy antibodies, this way, if you wanted an antibody, well, that was 6 months.
So, this lack of downtime has prevented people thinking as much, because they don’t have the time.
Yeah, and you don’t have, that’s my impression, people read much, much less. Yeah, the only person I could be sure to do the facts, was Sidney Brenner. Sidney in his way must have spent a lot of time reading. It’s the only way you can sort of really think far into the future, because you see other systems and, I don’t know how to bring back the wonderful days when you could take off the summer, and where you didn’t see your students as the root to keeping your grant.

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: 6 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010