Recorded: 09 Apr 2001
Obviously when I got to Harvard—I knew Jim was there—but when I got to Harvard, I had initially started to work in the laboratory of Matt Meselson. I spent my first year essentially as a member of Matt’s lab. However, at that point Matt was very involved in Washington—issues concerning chemical and biological warfare, and I decided I wanted a somewhat different environment for my own training. I went and saw Jim—now I’m sure I had seen Jim many times before that. I had heard Jim in courses and various lectures. But I went to Jim and I said that I was interested in possibly joining his lab: would that be possible? Jim didn’t really answer that question, as he, perhaps, didn’t really answer many questions that I and others asked through the years. Instead, he gave me an instruction. The instruction was to go that summer to the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium. Which year was this? This must have been—was it1969?—no, it was 1970 because I had already spent a year in the lab. Now I’m confused with the dates because 1969 was protein synthesis, 1970 was transcription. The meeting was transcription, therefore it must have been after I had been to graduate school for over a year, rather than the summer. So I went to Cold Spring Harbor as instructed, to the transcription symposium, and at Jim’s instruction, slept on the floor of what was then the white building as you entered, which was later painted another color, and went to the entire meeting. I found it very interesting and at the end of the meeting, I had to go back to Boston. And I still didn’t know whether I was going to be working in Jim’s lab. So I went to his house, where I think he was having a party or tea or something (that’s the house that Mike Wigler now lives in), and asked Jim, I said I went to the meeting, it was very interesting, and I was still interested in working in his lab, and what did he think? And his response was, “See Klaus when you get back to Boston.” So I guessed that was an acceptance. When I got back to Boston, in fact, I got together with Klaus Weber and began then the efforts that resulted in my Ph.D. work at Harvard.
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.