Mario Capecchi on Jim Watson’s Harvard Laboratory: Communication
  Mario Capecchi     Biography    
Recorded: 27 Feb 2003

Jim had a lab of about at that time I would guess at least over a dozen—mostly graduate students. He had very few postdocs. I think he was much more comfortable with graduate students. And I think because—I mean a graduate student is, I mean I still find that a) were much more naïve and so we can go—we’ll do problems that most postdocs and even faculty wouldn’t think about. And then we also have infinite energy. And what I remember most about the lab was being there all the time. I mean literally we were there at least twelve hours a day. I actually lived about a block away so I could come back in the middle of the night. We would work at nighttime. In fact at one point I actually I slept in the lab for over a year. I had all my clothes in there. I was actually downstairs. I mean it wasn’t in Jim’s lab, but it was in the biology building. And so I could spend literally twenty-four hours a day and I had—I slept on a lab bench, in essence, down on the first floor.

And the other thing that I remember is simply there is always discussion. You discussed not only your own work but other people’s work and what other people are doing. So we were in a constant flow of talking about science and where it’s going and who was doing what. So, you know, there was never a communication gap. And the people that Jim got to work with him were all competent. I mean so, you know, it wasn’t that, you know, some people were good and some people were bad. They were all good. And they were all excited and I think we were all addressing different—each of us had very different projects. We weren’t competing with each other. We actually worked quite closely together. And if an opportunity arose to do collaborations, for example, Jerry Adams and myself worked in collaboration in terms of the form of methiamine working as part of an initation of protein synthesis. We worked together and then we would also work apart. And so I had my own projects. I had projects in collaboration with others.

And the other thing was that Jim was extremely generous. At that time I was married to a chemistry major who actually also came from Antioch. And she was a fantastic technician. And Jim, you know, paid for her to be my technician. So we worked—not only, you know, we were all the time and I also had help. And that allowed us to do things that, you know, I couldn’t have done just by myself. And I think those kind of opportunities weren’t available anywhere in the country or they probably still aren’t.

So I think—and not only was there good interaction, I think you know, between Jim and Wally in the lab, but also there were very good interactions, for example, with Matt Meselson who’s was just a floor above. Mark Ptashne was working with him. [He] was down in our lab more than he was up in Matt Meselson’s lab. So we had that interaction also. And—and you know and when people succeeded everybody was happy because we knew, you know, we were making the lab better, and the better the lab was, the better all of us would be. And that’s also something that I try to remind people in my own laboratory. That, you know, you shouldn’t feel that if your own work is going badly and somebody else is doing well. You should actually be happy because that person is actually helping you out. And that I think Jim was very successful in getting that feeling across and so you weren’t trying to compete with each other but really helping each other.

We had opportunities. I mean I worked also with Gary Gussin (check spelling Strathern & Klar). I mean initially I started working in one lab where there was Ray Gesteland, Gary Gussin (check spelling Strathern & Klar) and myself. And then later on I had my own separate little lab where I was there with my wife.

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).