Recorded: 01 Jun 2001
Harry Noller: …Well, I was interested in science since I was a little boy. I had chemistry sets, and I collected bugs and snakes and everything. And I was crazy about astronomy and I was really shocked as a little boy to learn one day that you could actually earn a living as a scientist, and I speculated: how would you earn money as a scientist? I imagined maybe you would excavate fossils and sell them to people. I had no idea. But I was encouraged to think that you could actually do this kind of stuff for your work in life. So, I was always interested in it.
Winship Herr: Ah, ducks. My first memory is ducks.
Winship Herr: When I was two, ducks and my mother. She was a biologist who in her era couldn’t be a biologist and so she took me for walks. Because my brother was into physics and—he’s six years older than me—so I went through sort of copying him. And there was a phase in a third grade or something when I wanted to be a nuclear physicist or something. But—seventh grade I learned about genetics and never I looked back. That was ‘62 and the science teacher said, “Oh yeah, you know, phage genetics. This is the thing.” And I said, “That sounds good to me.”
Winship Herr: I was being taught about genetics. I wasn’t being taught phage genetics, but this was in Berkeley and there were a lot of—and so this high school teacher just said that—or actually, it might have been the eighth grade teacher that actually said this, that: genetics is the thing that’s happening now. They were just working on the genetic code. So, in high school, which was from ‘66-‘70, like in ‘68 I was being taught, you know, the structure of DNA, the genetic code, translation, the A and P sites and all of that stuff. And I didn’t realize until much later that was just a few years [old].
Winship Herr: But you know a lot of life is happenstance. And it just so happens [that] I had good biology teachers, and also, the truth be told, I’m more intuitive and not analytical. So physics requires exquisite math, and biology, you don’t have to be that smart a mathematician. And in fact, in my science I’m terrible about, you know, equilibrium constants, and stuff like that. I’m much more an intuitive person. But for the record, because what you said about Sydney Brenner—what Jim Watson tries to teach—one of the main messages he tries to teach in his school here—is what, if anything, you should learn in graduate school is to ask the important questions.
Harry Noller: I agree.
Winship Herr: And I think, the idea is if you are going to ask a question, you might as well be sure the answer will be interesting. Cause, you know, if you ask a trivial question, you’ll get a trivial answer.
Harry Noller: Right.
Winship Herr: Invest your effort in the right question.
Harry Noller: Exactly. Think all the way through and say, will you care if this experiment works?
Winship Herr: And he said it last night in the introduction to the Dorcas Cummings lecture that the ribosome is the heart of life. And so we were talking about this at the dinner on Wednesday. You—and I didn't completely appreciate this when I was in your lab—but you knew that ultimately when you found out the answer to how the ribosome worked it would be important because it was where life began.
But when did you become—so, see one of things that differentiates you from others is that you stuck with an inherent interest in the ribosome from beginning to end. You never erred from that path. But when [did you decide]? It couldn’t have been in the two weeks you were in Cambridge deciding to go to Alfred Tissières lab that you decided the ribosome was it for the rest of your life. There must have been something that said, “I really want to know.” Did it come in those two weeks?
Harry Noller: Well, the seeds of it were probably from even earlier. When I was starting at Berkeley, when they reconstituted tobacco mosaic virus—[Wendell] Stanley and [Heinz] Fraenkel-Conrat—and on the front page of the local papers was: “Scientists discover the secret of life.” Well, I guess, they found the RNA was infectious and they reconstituted the virus in the test tube. You know, viruses and the secret of life were sort of intertwined. So the idea that there was a secret of life sort of stuck. And it was sort of like when I majored in biochemistry at Berkeley, thinking that, “That’s right, there’s got to be these big molecules.” The difference between living and non-living things had to be in these big molecules. And so you take your calculus and physics and chemistry and zoology and all that and then finally, in your senior year, you get to take biochemistry and, “Ah, this is going to be it!” Instead it was like, intermediary metabolism and lipids and like that. I almost quit. And then, we had virology with [Günther] Stent, and Fraenkel-Conrat and [Robley] Williams and also Dan Mazia. His course [was] called Physicochemical Biology and this guy was so excited when he lectured he literally was frothing at the mouth and at the end of every lecture there was foam [indicates sides of the mouth].
Winship Herr: This wasn’t the guy who turned around and said, “The ‘ans’ is…”?
Harry Noller: No, that was a Differential Equations teacher. And so he [Mazia] taught about the real thing. He talked about the double helix; he talked about nerve membranes and excitation, about muscle contraction, about the spindle, the mitotic spindle, things that were really molecular biology, such as it was known in the late fifties. So it was that and the virology that kept me from just quitting and going into being an automobile mechanic or something.
Winship Herr, director of the University of Lausanne School of Biology and member of EMBO. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of California in 1974 and Ph.D. for studies on recombinant retroviruses in leukemogenic mice with Walter Gilbert from Harvard University in 1982. He completed his postdoctoral research studies in Cambridge (England) with Frederick Sanger and with Joe Sambrook in Cold Spring Harbor. After that he joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory faculty in 1984. From 1994 till 2002 he was an assistant director of the Laboratory and founding dean of the Watson School of Biological Sciences from 1998 till 2004. He is a professor of the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne.
Winship Herr is a former National Science Foundation predoctoral fellow, Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, Helen Hay Whitney postdoctoral fellow, and Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Biological Sciences.
Harry Noller, is best known for his work on on ribosomal RNA structure and function, currently the director of the University of California, Santa Cruz's Center for the Molecular Biology of RNA. He received his B.S. in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Oregon.
He received the Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Sciences together with Drs. Moore and Steitz for their research on the ribosome. Harry Noller has been awarded Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize granted by the Paul Ehrlich Foundation.
He is a member of National Academy of Science, RNA Society and American Academy of Art and Science.