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Why James Watson is so special


The Mitchison dynasty
Martin Raff Scientist
Comments (1) Please sign in or register to add comments
Mike Klymkowsky
Wednesday, 14 July 2010 05:46 PM
Martin's story and Av's advice about sharing should be required listening for all young (and old)...
Martin's story and Av's advice about sharing should be required listening for all young (and old) scientists.

He’s part of a dynasty that’s pretty amazing. His… his uncle was JBS Haldane who is one of Britain’s most eminent ever scientist… geneticist. His mother was Naomi, the novelist who died at 101 just a year or two ago. He has two brothers that are professors in life sciences, all famous scientists. He has a son, Tim, who’s one of the outstanding young cell biologists now in San… now in Boston, was in San Francisco for a long time. So this is a very unusual dynasty of creative scientists and Av is eccentric. I suppose they’re all eccentric. JBS was certainly eccentric.

I read a biography of JBS after I’d been with Av for a year or two and it was like a description of Av. I mean, they were so similar, quite remarkable, and both remarkably eccentric. But Av is brilliant, a great sense of humour, and just to give you a type of thing he would do, we were up in the animal room once taking thymus glands out of mice and he had just had a technician starting and you could see that she was very squeamish about all this, you know, cutting open a mouse, taking out the thymus. And just to make her see how trivial this all was he took a test tube full of these thymuses and went… one gulp, all the thymuses down, and this poor technician just about passed out.

But he was unusual in many ways, not only was he remarkably generous with his students and postdocs in that he wouldn’t put his name on their papers unless he had done many of the experiments so that many outstanding students of his, you wouldn’t even know they were students of his. I mean, I think he and I published I think one paper together, whereas in that era where he was my mentor I must’ve published 25 papers and only one with his name. So in history you would have trouble tracing me to Mitchison, even though he was my only mentor and taught me everything I know about how science works.

The other thing about him that I think is pretty unusual is when I started quite early in the game and had this antibody that was a very powerful tool, I would say the major competitor to the Mitchison lab from Australia came to visit and, as often happens in these visits, he went around and talked to the various scientists in the lab and he asked me, you know, what I’m doing and I hadn’t published anything on this subject and I was… I was a little uncomfortable.

So I went to Av and I said, ‘Look, he’s asking me what I’m doing, do I tell him everything?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, you tell him absolutely everything’. I said, ‘But, you mean, even stuff that I’m not even ready to write up?’ He said, ‘Yes, you tell him absolutely everything, you’ll learn something, he’s a great scientist’. Anyway, so I tell him everything, and after I told him everything you could see he was getting very excited because this was a tool that would enable him to do many things. He said, ‘So now could I get some of this antibody?’ I said, ‘Well, I’d better go ask my mentor, I don’t actually know’. So I went and asked Av, he says, ‘Yes, absolutely, give him whatever you can’. So I gave him the antibody. Now, I can tell you that none of these things are instinctive behaviours. The instinct is to not tell and the instinct is not to give, not to share reagents because you’re losing a competitive advantage, and therefore you have to be taught to share and to talk about your results early.

And I can tell you it paid off just so enormously for me because by talking about it widely long before I published it, I was getting feedback from people so that by the time I published it, I had had criticism and honed down the arguments. And by sending antibody around to everybody who wanted it, I was getting results back from all these labs doing things that I could never have done. You know, I was only one pair of hands, but here all these labs were using the antibody and checking it out in this system and that system.

So I can’t tell you how important it is in science to talk about what you’re doing early, before you publish, and give out every reagent as early as possible, even before you publish. And yet, the instinct is not to and most people don’t, so this is something that has to be taught and Av is one of the great teachers of this and I think had a very big impact on immunology early on in this way, opening it up and making it fun. The whole process moves so much faster if it’s open in this way and this is even greater problem today when there’s money involved in these reagents and some of the findings and so on.

So, yeah, I think this is advice to a young scientist that they almost never take, is talk about your stuff from the moment you think you know something. Anybody who’s willing to listen, you tell them because you’re going to learn fast that way, and give them reagents because if the reagent’s no good you’ll find out fast, and if it is good you’ll find out faster. So, yeah, I think it’s… this is as important as any other advice you can give and… and almost no young person will take it.

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. Recently retired from his professorship at University College, London, these stories were recorded in 2000.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Boston, San Francisco, Mitchison lab, Australia, Avrion Mitchison, JBS Haldane, Naomi Mitchison, Timothy Mitchison, Denis Mitchison, Murdoch Mitchison

Duration: 5 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 13 July 2010