Mario Capecchi on Jim Watson, “Lucky Jim”
  Mario Capecchi     Biography    
Recorded: 27 Feb 2003

Is Jim lucky? No, I don’t think Jim’s lucky. I think he has a fantastic intuition. I mean I think—I mean when we were at Harvard we had two scientists who were both excellent, almost opposites. One was Wally Gilbert and one was Jim. Jim had a tremendous intuition. He knew essentially how biological systems would work. And that’s something you simply are born with almost. Whereas—I mean Wally was much more quantitative. I mean he wanted to know numbers and amounts and, you know, what fold difference under this condition versus that condition. So the two together were fantastic because they had very different ways of thinking and a way to approach science.

So I don’t think of Jim as lucky. I think he simply has a sense essentially of where science is going. And also where he wants it to go. So I think at the same time he’s going where science is going and at the same time he’s also leading where science is going.

So I look at it as having a sense as to where things are likely to be interesting and fruitful to pursue. And I think, you know, coming when we were at Harvard, you know, the action was in bacteria. I mean bacterial viruses. Once he came here he’s working now much more on cancer problems because all of a sudden now there were a sufficient number of tools that could approach this particular problem. So I don’t consider that luck. I consider that having a good sense and knowing where to go.

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).