Robert Waterston on Jim Watson, Personality & Influence
  Robert Waterston     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

But Jim is an emotional person under it all. He’s very intuitive. He clearly thinks that these, you know, these relationships and people-count a lot. That his judgment and that his directions are highly dependent upon them. The first serious encounter that I had with Jim in depth about it all was at the worm meeting in ’89, because he had announced at a cocktail party with Bob Horvitz in late winter or something like that. Jim was at that point already head of the Center for Human Genome Research as it was called. And had taken the NRC report which has recommended that there be model organisms. And he was actually trying to figure out what model organisms should be included and Bob Horvitz, of course, is a famous worm researcher who just won the Nobel Prize for his worm work.

So Bob was at the party and Jim quite casually mentioned that he thought E. coli and the yeast Sacchromyces cerevisiae and Drosophila and mouse should be the model organisms that were going to be sequenced. And Bob just—I don’t know, I’d like to hear what Jim’s recount of Bob’s facial expression at the time. But it must have been, you know, his jaw must have dropped or something because the next day he was on the phone to both me and John [Sulston] about how this was going to be a disaster. We could not let this happen. That it was going to be our fault if it did because we were the genome gurus and it was our responsibility to sequence the worm. And that we had to get on it. We had to get on the stick and we could not let Jim do this. And so one thing led to another.

The worm meeting was at Cold Spring Harbor every other year. And fortunately ’89 was the year it was going to be there. And so we arranged to meet with Jim to talk with him about C. elegans and it was—Bob was there and Alan and me and, I don’t know if there was anybody else. John, Alan, me, and Bob, I think that was it. But beforehand we’d had actually we put the C. elegans map, the clonal map of the worm, up on the wall off the Blackford auditorium. And it stretched across and made a marvelous display and it was really fun as well because people kept coming up to that the whole meeting, and you know, finding their little region of the genome. Cause it was pretty contiguous. We really could put the six chromosomes up on the wall in pretty contiguous fashion. And apparently Jim came by on a Saturday afternoon. We saw him on maybe Friday and we saw him on Saturday I guess it was. Anyway he reputedly looked at it and said you can’t see this without wanting to sequence it. And this got back to us and we felt pretty cocky. This is pretty good news. And then—and so we met with him. And had our meeting. And we were talking about this and that and making our proposal and telling him why the worm was important. And the first—the one question that he asked us that we didn’t expect was how many NIH grants does the worm have? He’s worried about the political constituency and whether it’s a good investment. And, you know, we were just worried about whether it was good science. And so we flubbed that one. But anyway John—we’d actually talked ahead whether John should do this or not. And both Bob and I said, well, if you want to. And finally John just got impatient and said, “Look, Jim! If you give us a hundred million dollars we’ll sequence the worm in ten years!” And Jim just looked at him and said, “John, we don’t do things that way in this country.”

But what he did—I think that during that conversation and I think it was—I don’t think it was planned ahead of time. I mean we came to actually—Jim gave us the administrative guidelines by which we could go ahead. And one really extraordinary thing is that he agreed that he would pay for one-third of the English part of the project. That I would write the grant and in the grant I would include not only the part that I wanted, but a third of the English part. And John and I had agreed ahead of time that it had to be fifty-fifty. That a partnership where there was a junior partner would soon end up with no partner. I mean it would just not be tenable. And so Jim—I mean I don’t know if he, I have no idea how he got away with it in the end. And how, you know, whether he had checked or whatever, but he made this extraordinary offer and so that’s how we wrote the grant. And, of course, we had to go through peer review. It had to—this was not any kind of a guarantee, but he gave us the administrator framework by which if we did this he at least would sign off on it. And so that’s how it started. But he really is—he’s very perceptive and trusts his intuition.

Robert Waterston received his bachelor's degree in engineering from Princeton University (1965) and both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in pathology from the University of Chicago (1972). After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, he joined the Washington University faculty in 1976 where he is the James S. McDonnel Professor of Genetics, head of the Department of Genetics, and director of the School of Medicine’s Genome Sequencing Center, which he founded in 1993. In early 2003 Dr Waterston took on the role of Chair of the department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was a recipient of the International Gairdner Award, the Genetics Society of America’s Beadle Award, the Dan David Prize, and the Alfred P. Sloan Award from the GM Cancer Research Foundation.

Waterston attended the worm meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Lab and in 1989 Watson supported Waterston’s proposal to use the worm as a model organism in the Human Genome Project.