Recorded: 22 Mar 2003
I was at Cold Spring Harbor and it became clear that I would not be able to return to Harvard any time soon because the moratorium had been extended on recombinant DNA research. And Jim—well, actually what happened was that I was contacted by Caltech about going there. And actually that’s an interesting story in itself. But because the person who was offering me the position was Robert Sinsheimer, who was the most respected and outspoken opponent of recombinant DNA research. And here I was doing recombinant DNA research. He was the chairman of biology at Caltech and he was recruiting me to join his department.
So Jim offered me the opportunity to stay at Cold Spring Harbor. And at the time there was limited space and somehow I had this idea that, it was really based on my experience at Harvard, that I wanted to be at a place where there are students. I felt more comfortable in a university situation. I felt that I wanted to teach, which in retrospect is pretty amazing. And so I just felt that Cold Spring Harbor was not the place where I wanted to continue doing science.
And it was complicated too because at that time my wife was very unhappy. She, there’s again a heavy toll on relationships at Cold Spring Harbor because the wives or the, now, husbands, the spouses of people who are there have to live in a very different world. If you’re at a university your partner can have a life of their own. In this particular case, my wife really her whole life, you know, was now devoted to being a wife of a scientist. And she was a geologist. She had her own life and her own interest and so on. And it was difficult because there, you know, you’re really isolated and we had a small child and she really did not want to stay. So that, I mean that was one issue.
But there are these other issues and so, what happened was—and again I mentioned this in the essay that I wrote—that Jim offered me this. I don’t remember writing that letter actually. And then I think it was on Christmas Eve when I really had decided to go to Caltech. He and Liz invited my wife and I to dinner. And at that dinner was David Dressler who was a junior faculty member who was previously a student of Gilbert but he was part of the Watson-Gilbert group. And they spent the entire evening, Gilbert, I’m sorry [I mean] Dressler and Watson railing against Caltech saying how could you possibly want to go there. It’s a horrible place and so on. And of course I only learned later, I wasn’t aware of this at the time even though it was I think mentioned in The Double Helix, that Jim’s experience there was really awful. And actually in the talks he gives lately is that one of the reasons is that there are no women there.
So it was a combination of really wanting me to stay and his negative feelings about Caltech. And I’d already made the decision and so it was a pretty torturous Christmas Eve.
But you know, it’s funny. As awkward and as difficult as that moment was I look back and see it as Jim’s inimitable way of trying to convince me to do what he thought was right. Now for me it turned out it was the right thing to do because my experience at Caltech was fantastic. I was very productive there. I enjoyed my experience there a lot. But at the time I was uncertain.
Tom Maniatis, molecular biologist, is a leader in the field of recombinant DNA. At Vanderbilt University he completed his Ph.D. studying DNA wide-angle scattering. He became a postdoctoral fellow and professor at Harvard University and met Jim Watson just before he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
While Maniatis was beginning experimentation with cDNA cloning and gene regulation of higher cells, the controversy over recombinant DNA in Cambridge stunted his progression. Watson offered Maniatis a position at CSHL where he could work more efficiently to understand the methods of recombinant DNA. At CSHL, Maniatis completed full-length synthesis of double stranded DNA and actual cloning of cDNA.
He is currently a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University studying the mechanisms involved in the regulation of RNA transciption and pre-messenger RNA splicing. He studies transcription to understand how eukaryotic genes are activated by viral infection and extracellular signals.