Recorded: 01 Jun 2001
Winship Herr: Harry is my mentor and he is the crazy scientist who turned me on to science. And I guess, as I was saying in my introduction [to the Ribosome meeting] the other day, you were trained as a protein chemist and the ribosome ruined you.
Harry Noller: I started out in enzyme mechanisms in Sid Bernhard’s lab but I started doing protein chemistry as a result of that…
Winship Herr: Was that the few months that were so successful they gave you a degree [that] was [in] protein chemistry so you decided…?
Harry Noller: I was on a roll.
Winship Herr: So you took your backpack into the MRC and the great Sydney Brenner told you, you should work on the ribosome.
Harry Noller: Yeah.
Winship Herr: Did you, I mean, obviously when he first told you, you didn’t know whether he was right or not. Right?
Harry Noller: Well, it was an incredible thing. I mean, it was really important, as people tell me—typically, Sydney Brenner—I had known a type in Berkeley, an English guy; he was into English literature. He went back, and—he was from Cambridge—and went back there to become head of English Studies at King’s College, Tony Tanner. And he told me to look him up when I got to Cambridge and so I did. And then, he invited me to a sherry party at Kings College and I went there, and it was very intimidating. It was my first real exposure to Cambridge intellectual life outside of the MRC lab, where I was used to [the] scientific [atmosphere], but this was like everybody in King’s College: the dons, the professors, and the proper accent. The dumbest guy in the room was about a hundred times smarter than anybody I ever met in my life.
And Sydney Brenner was probably the smartest person of them and he comes up to me and says, “So, what are you working on?” I said “I’m working on glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase.” And he said, “That’s stupid. If you’re a protein chemist, why don’t you work on ribosomes?" I just went – my ego went [makes sinking motion with hand]. You know, I was devastated. But—you know, it took me a couple weeks to realize what he was doing, and it was what he has done to a lot of people. And that’s to tell you that you that you only have your whole life to work on science and no more. And you can spend it working on something boring or something exciting. It’s up to you. And that never occurred to me. I thought that working on ribosomes was for the big guys and that I was just this little guy who was not up to that. But, you know, he [Sydney Brenner] forced the issue and so I wrote to Alfred [Tissières] and Alfred essentially said, “When can you get here (to Geneva)?”
Winship Herr, director of the University of Lausanne School of Biology and member of EMBO. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of California in 1974 and Ph.D. for studies on recombinant retroviruses in leukemogenic mice with Walter Gilbert from Harvard University in 1982. He completed his postdoctoral research studies in Cambridge (England) with Frederick Sanger and with Joe Sambrook in Cold Spring Harbor. After that he joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory faculty in 1984. From 1994 till 2002 he was an assistant director of the Laboratory and founding dean of the Watson School of Biological Sciences from 1998 till 2004. He is a professor of the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne.
Winship Herr is a former National Science Foundation predoctoral fellow, Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, Helen Hay Whitney postdoctoral fellow, and Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Biological Sciences.
Harry Noller, is best known for his work on on ribosomal RNA structure and function, currently the director of the University of California, Santa Cruz's Center for the Molecular Biology of RNA. He received his B.S. in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Oregon.
He received the Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Sciences together with Drs. Moore and Steitz for their research on the ribosome. Harry Noller has been awarded Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize granted by the Paul Ehrlich Foundation.
He is a member of National Academy of Science, RNA Society and American Academy of Art and Science.