Recorded: 09 Apr 2001
I mean the experience was phenomenal, working at Harvard at that point. But I wouldn’t describe it as “Watson’s Laboratory.” The laboratory, what was unbelievably special about it and what was very unusual, I think remains so unusual to this day was the fact that it wasn’t Jim’s laboratory. There were a number of faculty that basically ran that laboratory in a very collaborative way. The three key people there were Jim [Watson], Wally Gilbert, and Klaus Weber. And a better combination of spectacular scientists, phenomenal minds, and complementarily, I couldn’t imagine. Jim was, Jim is intuitive. He had an uncanny sense for science and scientific problems and, I think some would say, for people as well. Wally was critical to the extreme; he could figure out something wrong or something right, where other people wouldn’t have a chance of seeing through it at all. Klaus Weber could make anything work. He had magic fingers and an incredible sense of how to develop new experimental techniques and apply them in a way that would be meaningful. And being in that lab you had Jim’s intuition, and Wally’s critical-ness, and Klaus’s experimental talents and it was unreal. Plus, a group of students and postdocs basically who thrived in that kind of environment and helped whoever was around.
So the environment was almost unimaginable and, I would say, almost indescribable, because of really the combination of individuals who were there. It was striking in many ways at many times. I mean, group meetings: we had three group meetings a week. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday there was a group meeting. In fact some years later, after there was an article written in I think it was The Real Paper about Wally Gilbert, the group meetings acquired a running title: it was called “Stalking the Secret of Life.” And that came about because this article about Wally was called “Stalking the Secret of Life.” So the group meetings were “Stalking the Secret of Life, Part 482,” “Stalking the Secret of Life, Part 483,” and so on and so forth. The group meetings were an amazing experience because you had Jim Watson, you had Wally Gilbert, you had Klaus Weber, and usually you had Mark Ptashne, who wandered down from the floor above. Basically, if you survived through a group meeting, you could talk to any audience in the world, because there was no audience more knowledgeable, more critical, or more aggressive than the audience involving those four faculty members and all the rest of the people associated with them. So it was a training experience in many ways, I think, for all concerned. And it was very special. It taught one to think, it taught one to do, and it taught one—I think more than that—to appreciate what science really could be all about. I think that’s one of the things about Jim. It was always there from my first interactions with him, that what he really cared about was science. He wanted to know and he wanted to help people to figure out how to find out, and that drove so many of the things he did then and some years later as well. So the answer is the experience was phenomenal.
H. Robert Horvitz received his Ph.D. in 1974 from Harvard University, under the tutelage of Jim Watson. He joined the MIT Department of Biology faculty in 1978, and was named David Koch Professor of Biology in 2000. He is also Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and was appointed Investigator at the McGovern Institute in 2001.
Horvitz is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience. In 2002, he was award the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Sydney Brenner and John Sulston “for their discoveries concerning 'genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death'."
Horvitz currently studies how genes control the development of the nervous system and how the nervous system controls behavior. He has elucidated a molecular genetic pathway for programmed cell death (apoptosis), which is fundamental to nervous system development in all animals.