Recorded: 17 Apr 2000
I would call his research direction as being laissez faire. It’s: Put you on a project, surround you with good people and let you go, and so I’ve tended to do that. I don’t tell people exactly what they should do everyday in that regard. I think everybody in the lab knew if we did good work, that we would get a lot of credit for it, because he didn’t put his name on any of our papers. When I discovered Sigma, it was my work, not somebody from Jim Watson’s lab. I think that made a difference; it was an incentive to do really good stuff. You knew that you were going to be recognized as the person who did the work. Not many people I know can do that—not put their names on their student’s papers, I wish I had a paper with his name on it, actually.
…Well, you know, when you are a young student… you think of anybody over twenty-five as pretty old. We all thought he was quite old when he was really forty. Now I think forty is pretty young. I don’t think my attitude about him changed very much, I think that I [have] always respected his opinion. I think everyone was a little intimidated by him because he was such an important person in molecular biology. I remember after I left the lab and I was at Wisconsin, as an assistant professor in the early ’70s, and I wanted to come to a Cold Spring Harbor meeting and I forgot to apply. And I called him up to ask him if I could come to the meeting and I was not sure whether he’d be supportive or whether he would be irritated at me. He was very nice, he was very gracious and he was clearly happy to have me come to the meeting. I felt so good; I was very nervous making the phone call to him. I wasn’t sure quite how he would respond. Because I teach at Cold Spring Harbor—the last eleven years, teaching the protein purification course—I see him regularly. In fact I just had breakfast with him this morning and I always find it really is nice. Your thesis advisor is sort of like your father, or your mother if you happened to work for a woman, in a way—somebody that helped you, somebody who really has guided you in your development, I still feel that way. And he still seems to be able to have good advice. Not so much about detailed experiments, because he never gave me that advice, but more about strategy.
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.