Recorded: 09 Apr 2001
I, to some extent, became a scientist by default because when I was an undergraduate, I had very diverse interests. And in fact, [I] got degrees in theoretical mathematics, which is of course science but very different from biology, and also economics. I considered doing many different kinds of things subsequently, but basically because of the advice of a college roommate, decided during my last year to take an introductory course in biology. The introductory class used Jim [Watson]’s book, I think it was the first edition of The Molecular Biology of the Gene. About two chapters into it, I decided that this was different from anything I had known of as biology, certainly different from the formaldehyde-drenched animals I dissected in high school. I thought it might be interesting and I went to the professor teaching the course and said, “I know nothing about biology. I am going to graduate in less then a year. Is it ridiculous to think about going into biology?” He said, “No, it wasn’t ridiculous at all,” and, in fact, he had done much the same sort of thing, and he encouraged me. So with that I basically completed the course, got a very elementary introduction to biology and over the next summer – actually, I spent the summer after I graduated traveling around the country, living out of a tent with three roommates and ex-roommates from my undergraduate years and during that period of time we did many things. I read two books. One was called Beat the Dealer. It explained how to win at Blackjack. It was very useful when we got to Las Vegas. And the other was The Double Helix and it introduced me, in another way, to Jim and to biology and to science and to the ways that it worked and the kinds of personalities that could be involved. And so it was with that introduction basically that I ended up at Harvard in biology the next fall. Now, whether or not that was really my introduction to science is a different question because, of course, I had had interests that related to many aspects of science for years before that. But I think if most people had asked me—or most people I knew during the intermediate years of my undergraduate days—where I was going to end up, science was very likely not the place.
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.