Recorded: 31 May 2003
Oh, of course. Everyone remembers their first encounter with Jim Watson. Not that I didn’t know who he was, of course, I knew. There is no doubt that in every meeting that one came here, you would see him coming in and out. But I think meeting meaning it is not shaking hands with somebody, but meeting meaning coming with the full force of a Jim Watson on you, and having a discussion had to do with. I don’t know. It must be over ten years ago. It had to do with the discussion on finding genes for breast cancer and how in his opinion, people should deal with that information, which I don’t have to articulate what that might have been.
I think his persona was known to me before. It’s actually very interesting that his persona was known to me not only from the ’53 paper which I read much later, but I think the first time I came across that personality was in reading The Double Helix, which my brother gave me. So this was 1969, if I remember right.
So when I met him, or when I even saw him, this was exactly the same person that I imagined. And I think I’m actually very comfortable with Jim Watson being who he is. I, again, grew up in a time and a place where I think this is partly the realm of what scientists are, or who scientists are in the European, or clearly the English tradition. They are all a little eccentric. I think for some reason I’m very attracted to these individuals, attracted to these individuals as the way they think, their directness, and the way they view the world in fairly straightforward terms.
Without going into too many details, I grew up in an institution and in which J.B.S. Haldane stayed at the end of his life. I think Haldane and Jim Watson in spirit, I think, are very similar characters. Their views are known to everybody and their views are known in clear terms to everybody. There’s absolutely no doubt that they are very, very articulate in their own ways.
So I think that meeting Watson was sort of establishing this feature of a scientist as a scientist should be.
Now, you’ve asked about his writing. I think he is one of the clearest writers that are in science and in explaining science the way it is, and the excitement of science. The Double Helix is described in very many ways by various people. And when I first read it I think what impressed me the most was that science was exciting, and biology was exciting. All the biology that I had learned to that point in time was descriptive. Here are the species names of plants, this is how we classify and a little bit of the theory of natural selection, although there was probably no more data when I was an early undergraduate student than in the beginnings of when the previous generations of scientists had found it.
And this was really a new world. And getting that excitement, that biology could be probed, that we could get to it in the kind of molecular detail was fantastic.
Aravinda Chakravarti received his Ph.D. in Human Genetics from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston (1979). After a postdoctoral year at the University of Washington in Seattle, he joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Biostatistics and later the Department of Human Genetics as a professor.
In 1994 he moved to Case Western Reserve as Professor of Genetics and Medicine to apply genomic and computer-based methods to study common diseases that arise from a combination of genetic and non-genetic factors.
Dr Chakravarti is one of the Editors-in-Chief of Genome Research, and serves on the Advisory and Editorial Boards of numerous national and international journals and societies. He is a past member of the NIH National Advisory Council of the National Human Genome Research Institute and has chaired the NIH Subcommittee in the 3rd 5-year Genome Project Plan, and continues to serve on several NIH panels.
In 2000 he became Professor of Medicine at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and was named director of their new McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, where he is currently the Henry J. Knott Professor and Director.