Recorded: 27 Feb 2003
I became a scientist, I think, when I was going to college. I went to a small liberal arts school at Antioch College. It’s in Ohio. And one of the programs is—I was a physics and chemistry major there. And one of their programs is to study and work all the time. So you study a quarter, then work a quarter. And in the process I had lab jobs all over the country including at MIT for example in Alex Rich’s lab, working at the Sloan Kettering Foundation, working at the Kettering Foundation. And in this way I got to not only learn about science but to experience it and see whether I liked it. It was marvelous.
This would be in college. So, how old was I? So this would have been in the 20’s, early 20’s. So that’s essentially when I started seriously thinking about science.
I also grew up with my uncle who is a physicist. Initially I didn’t think that was having an influence, but I think it did have an influence, in terms of thinking about physics. But what really excited me was actually at that time molecular biology was just starting. And it looked like it was field where you could ask almost any question and have a good chance of being able to answer it. And it was people from all different disciplines came into it; from chemistry, physics, biology. And in a sense we felt like we were almost invincible. In the sense that there were problems that no matter how complex here all of a sudden you had an opportunity to start addressing them.
And I think in physics I felt that the problems that you were—the interesting problems that could be addressed—would have to done in enormous teams and with very expensive equipment. Whereas in molecular biology there was opportunity to be an individual and I think that’s what really attracted me.
I think I enjoy the discipline. I enjoy thinking about problems and solving problems. So it’s in essence it gives us a way of just playing throughout our lives to address questions which we find fascinating. So, it’s a marvelous opportunity to do what you want to do.
Mario R. Capecchi, Ph.D., is a scientist and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and a founding member of the Brain Institute at the University of Utah. He also serves as the Distinguished Professor and Co-Chairman of Human Genetics and Biology at the University of Utah, where he joined the faculty in 1973.
In 2007 Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Oliver Smithies and Martin Evans for their research on gene targeting techniques, specifically working with mice embryo-derived stem cells. In the 1980s Capecchi pioneered a technology known as "knockout mice" which revolutionized genetic and biomedical research. This technology allows scientists to replace or disrupt specific genes in mice to understand how a similar gene disruption in humans may cause or contribute to diseases.
Capecchi, abandoned and homeless as a 4-year old child in Italy during World War II, was reunited with his mother and immigrated to the United States in 1946. After receiving a B.S. in physics and chemistry from Antioch College in 1961, he joined Jim Watson's Biological laboratory at Harvard University where he received a doctorate in biophysics in 1967. Capecchi remained at Harvard, first as a junior fellow until 1969, followed by four years as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Harvard School of Medicine, until he left for the University of Utah in 1973.
Capecchi is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1991) and the European Academy of Sciences (2002). His other numerous honors include the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research (1992), Gairdner Foundation International Award for Achievements in Medical Science (1993), General Motors Corporation's Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Prize for Outstanding Basic Science Contributions to Cancer Research (1994), Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences (1996), the Franklin Medal for Advancing Our Knowledge of the Physical Sciences (1997), the University of Utah's Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence (1998), the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2001), the National Medal of Science (2001), the Wolf Prize in Medicine (2003), the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) International Award for Cancer Research (2003), and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (2005).