Richard Burgess on Jim Watson as a Mentor
  Richard Burgess     Biography    
Recorded: 23 Apr 2001

Well, he was an unusual kind of a mentor. It’s hard to use him as a role model to be a mentor for other students. I had a great respect for his scientific intuition. As I said, he put you on wonderful projects but he didn’t provide you with very much guidance on a day-to-day basis because he expected you to figure out what you needed to do and do it. He attracted very good people into his lab—Klaus Weber was in his lab, Wally Gilbert was in the lab, there were good graduate students and post docs. So there were plenty of people to go to for advice on how to run a column, or how to do something. Guido Guidotti was just upstairs and he’s a wonderful protein biochemist. I learned a lot from Guido; I learned a lot from Klaus Weber; I learned a lot from the other people in the lab. But I was one of the first ones to work on purifying proteins. Because up till that time people had worked on ribosomes; they worked on in vitro translation; they’d work on the R17 virus. John Richardson was the first person and I was the second person in the lab working on transcription. Jeff Roberts started working on transcription of lambda, and, in the process, found termination factor, rho. Wally was working on repressors, and that was transcription, Mark Ptashne was working on Lambda repressors and that was transcription. Then more [of] the lab became interested in transcription about that time. As a mentor, I remember, his main mechanism was to walk into the lab about 8:30 on a Sunday night and ask you, “What’s up?” Since rarely were we not in the lab at 7 or 8:30 on a Sunday night, you could pretty much count on him showing up. I think one of the reasons why he and I got along pretty well is that instead of saying, “Nothing,” or “It’s not working,” if it wasn’t working, I’d say, “Let me tell you about phospho-cellulose chromatography.” And I think he sort of appreciated me teaching him about some of the tools I was using, because he didn’t really know much about them. I don’t think most people had the courage to try to teach him something. I know from my experience that I am happy when my students try to teach me something, Maybe him too.

I think the most important part of the lab was created in an atmosphere where it was expected that you did great science: That you asked the best questions you could ask and you used the best tools you could use. But you didn’t have to—I didn’t sit down with him on a regular basis and go through my results. We gave our results at group meetings. We talked about our results with our colleagues at afternoon tea. We all knew what each other was doing. But when it finally came where we got some results, then that’s when he became more active in helping us with the first drafts of our papers. I would write a draft and he would write illegible comments in the margin and you didn’t know what he was commenting about, but you knew there was something he didn’t like. And so you had to look it over and figure out how you could improve this, and that happened both in writing manuscripts and in writing thesis. You basically knew that there was something there, somewhere on that part of the page that wasn’t to his liking, you would try to figure out what that was and try to make it better.


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.