Recorded: 09 Apr 2001
I think the relationship grew [from the time I was a] beginning student. I mean, to me he was always James Watson, very famous Nobel-laureate star scientist, Harvard professor. I didn’t have many of these labels at the point he got to know me. So there was some asymmetry in the relationship, as there is to this day. But as I got to know him, I felt that he was someone I could talk with. And as things transpired at Harvard, I felt I got to know him better and better. There were sometimes problems, there were issues with respect to other people at the lab, and I could still remember sitting behind the closed door where Jim was incredibly sympathetic and supportive of me in an issue that I had found quite traumatic. His support continued in very obvious ways. I didn’t always agree with him; that didn’t always please him.
At one point when I was deciding what to do after leaving his lab, he had some thoughts about what I should and shouldn’t do. And I had some different views and there was a period in which there was some discomfort, because I had something different from what he had in mind. After a while he came back to me and he said, “Do you really want to do—(what I had said I wanted to do)?” Which amongst other things involved working on the nervous system. I said, “Yes, I really want to work on the nervous system. I think it supplies basic problems in biology. What could be more intriguing than thinking about mind and consciousness, memory and brain function, and nervous system function more generally? This is what I wanted to do.” Jim looked at me for a bit and then he said, “Do you know anything about the nervous system?” And I had to confess, no I didn’t know anything about the nervous system. This was about as naïve a thought as I could possibly have, and I said no. And Jim said, “We’d better fix that. You know Cold Spring Harbor teaches neurobiology courses; I’ve signed you up for all of them.”
And so I went the summer of 1974 to Cold Spring Harbor. I took three successive neurobiology courses: the Introduction to Neurobiology, a course in electrophysiogical techniques, and a course in the Neurobiology of Drosophila. I took more courses in one summer than anyone had ever any taken at that point and, as I understand it, that’s still true, that I hold the record for most courses in a summer. And Jim arranged it because he decided if I was going to do this, I should do it right.
Now there were other aspects of this that also indicated Jim’s support and the way he operated. So I got to Cold Spring Harbor, and when I got there I found—at Blackford, where the mailboxes were—an envelope and in that envelope was a bill for three Cold Spring Harbor summer courses. Well, I was a graduate student. I couldn’t pay that bill under any circumstances. And so I had two options. One is I gave them back the bill and drive up to Boston, or I go see Jim. So I took the bill and I went to go see Jim and I said “Jim, there’s a problem. You suggested I take these three courses but I can’t pay for them; they’ve given me a bill.” Jim looked at me and said, “Give me the bill.” I gave him the bill and I never heard another word. So I took three summer courses and somebody else somehow managed to take care of the financial aspects of that.
So I spent a summer there and I spent lots of time that summer talking with Jim, and whenever I go back to Cold Spring Harbor, I make an effort to try to spend some talking with Jim. I guess, in recent days, we haven’t spent as much time just walking around the grounds, which we used to do. But at least in his office I get to hear what is agitating him most at the current moment and also his thoughts about various other things.
I see Jim in other contexts. I occasionally see him in England. We are both on the advisory board for the Sanger Centre; I see him in other places. And if there’s ever an opportunity, I seek him out. I seek him out because I like him; I seek him out because I respect him, because it’s always interesting and fun to interact with him and hear what he’s thinking about. And I guess that the evolution of my relationship has been one that has involved especially much me than for him, a change in my experience, a change in my knowledge, a change in my position, so I can go to Jim and maybe have a little more to bring to aspects of the conversation than I did in the early days. But he’s still out of my league.
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.