Mario Capecchi on Jim Watson, Mentor: Teaching the Essence of Science
  Mario Capecchi     Biography    
Recorded: 27 Feb 2003

I think he was—I mean he, I think, he enjoyed the interaction. I mean I don’t think he intimidated us in terms of—I mean he wanted us to know what we were doing and to defend the data then be completely open about it. But he didn’t scare us in the sense that we weren’t able to then confront him. I think what he wants is a good battle and you know and if you can stick up with whatever you do in a rational way and then that was good. And so I think it gave us a lot of confidence very early. I mean the lab talks were used to be, you know, here is not only Jim is there but Wally was there. Often Matt Meselson was there. And these guys are all very bright. And they can see the holes and they can also see the good parts. Most of the time they were, you know, struck with the holes.

But it taught you, you know, to be a-ready. I mean once you’ve gone through that procedure you can go to a public lecture and you’ll have no worry about talking there because you’ve already heard of all the possible criticisms that could possibly come up. And I think it made you think about the problem in great details because you want to anticipate essentially what people are thinking about it. But at the same time learn from the interactions. So it was extremely stimulating. I mean it wasn’t easy. I mean it was tough. But on the other hand, you know, you really grew and you really became a good scientist.

And I think what to me is important, what I learned in Jim’s lab isn’t so much, you know, of how to do science but really the essence of science. You know, what is the discipline, what are you trying to get at, what are the kind of questions that are addressable and how do you do it.

Mario R. Capecchi, Ph.D., is a scientist and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and a founding member of the Brain Institute at the University of Utah. He also serves as the Distinguished Professor and Co-Chairman of Human Genetics and Biology at the University of Utah, where he joined the faculty in 1973.

In 2007 Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Oliver Smithies and Martin Evans for their research on gene targeting techniques, specifically working with mice embryo-derived stem cells. In the 1980s Capecchi pioneered a technology known as "knockout mice" which revolutionized genetic and biomedical research. This technology allows scientists to replace or disrupt specific genes in mice to understand how a similar gene disruption in humans may cause or contribute to diseases.

Capecchi, abandoned and homeless as a 4-year old child in Italy during World War II, was reunited with his mother and immigrated to the United States in 1946. After receiving a B.S. in physics and chemistry from Antioch College in 1961, he joined Jim Watson's Biological laboratory at Harvard University where he received a doctorate in biophysics in 1967. Capecchi remained at Harvard, first as a junior fellow until 1969, followed by four years as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Harvard School of Medicine, until he left for the University of Utah in 1973.

Capecchi is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1991) and the European Academy of Sciences (2002). His other numerous honors include the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research (1992), Gairdner Foundation International Award for Achievements in Medical Science (1993), General Motors Corporation's Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Prize for Outstanding Basic Science Contributions to Cancer Research (1994), Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences (1996), the Franklin Medal for Advancing Our Knowledge of the Physical Sciences (1997), the University of Utah's Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence (1998), the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2001), the National Medal of Science (2001), the Wolf Prize in Medicine (2003), the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) International Award for Cancer Research (2003), and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (2005).