H. Robert Horvitz on Scientific Career: Influence from Harvard
  H. Robert Horvitz     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Apr 2001

So how much of what I do and the way I run my lab is based upon what I learned at Harvard? And the answer is much, but not all. So, first of all, our group meetings [for example]. [In] my group, there aren’t two other colleagues who are interacting that closely. There was at one point another colleague who was interacting very closely and all of our group meetings were together. But we still didn’t run the two labs in an intermingled way. She was also from Harvard, by the way—a Mark Ptashne student. So that’s different. The group meetings are run with each person presenting a one hour seminar – that I learned from Jim – rather than a little bit of an update here, a little bit of an update there. For people to learn to present in front of a group, they should present, they should tell their story. And that people do. The style of lab and the nature of my interaction, in part, I learned from Jim. I was convinced from Jim and much of the Harvard approach that the best way to train a scientist was to have a young person do science. And that means learning to do science, learning to be independent.

So, what I believe very firmly is that if you are trying to train young scientists, you don’t go in at nine o’clock in the morning and two o’clock in the afternoon and seven o’clock in the evening and say, “Here’s what you ought to be doing. What did you do in the last six hours?” But rather you should talk about problems, you should talk about kinds of approaches, and you should let people figure out through their brains and their fingers, what it is they should do and let them solve it when it doesn’t work. Now, obviously, you can’t let that go on forever, but the basic idea is the more independence that you give people, the more independent they learn to be. I certainly learned that from Jim and in general from that research group. There was very rarely anyone standing over your shoulder telling you what to do or even asking you what you had been doing. Rather you were in an environment where you were free to explore whatever interested you. And there were many things that I did at that point that Jim and Wally and Klaus didn’t know about until they were done, particularly in the later stages. I think to them, they had succeeded. That’s how I try to run my lab. I try to get people to the stage where they come to me and tell me that they had an idea and they could carry it out and it worked. And then I say: stamp of approval, go somewhere else you’re ready. That environment.

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.