Recorded: 23 Apr 2001
I think there are probably more stories about Wally Gilbert smoking a cigar in the cold room—pipetting while he was smoking his cigar. There are some noteworthy things that Wally did. My impression is that the people that worked in Jim’s lab just had a steady respect for his intellect and his wisdom and proceeded to do good work there and continued to do good work afterwards. I think the neat statistics—if somebody would calculate it—is how many of the people that worked in his lab continued to do really good science. There were a lot of labs that had really good people who’ve done good work and then you never heard from them again. A large fraction of the people that worked in his lab have continued to be really active contributing scientists. I think that’s because we felt that what we were doing was really important, and we liked to do it.
What I tell my students is: When you first come into the lab, I want you to work hard, but after a while, I want you to say, “Is this really something I love to do?” Because if you don’t, you shouldn’t continue to do it. I don’t know anybody who worked in his lab that decided that this is not something they wanted to do. Maybe he had a good way of selecting people ahead of time, or maybe the excitement of being in a place where so much good stuff was being done made it more exciting. But one way or another, these people wanted to be scientists, really good scientists.
Richard Burgess is a geneticist who has been an important figure in cancer, microbial, and molecular research. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University under Jim Watson in 1969 and went on to work with Alfred Tissieres at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.
He is currently researching RNA polymerases, monoclonal antibodies (MAbs), molecular genetics, computer-based sequence and structure analysis, and biochemistry at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Reaearch at the University of Wisconsin.