Mario Capecchi on Jim Watson, Mentor: Fostering Independence
  Mario Capecchi     Biography    
Recorded: 27 Feb 2003

I mean Jim was really fantastic in terms of a mentor because I think he gave you enormous amount of freedom. That is, he would discuss with you problems but how you approached the problem, how you set up the experiment that was completely on your own. And this—I think his philosophy is that if you’re really interested in what you’re doing and have an invested interest in it, then you will do a good job. And I think that philosophy works very well for somebody like me. You know, I didn’t have to be told to work. I mean I worked I would guess ninety hours a week. And we were in the lab all the time and we were addressing, you know, the most important problems that we could think about at that time.

I mean, Jim’s lab was—I mean it’s remarkable. I mean he set up the lab in 1958 and by, you know, the time I joined it in 1961 it was one of the very top laboratories in the country. I mean I think the only other competing labs were really, for example, Cambridge, England and in Paris under Jacob and Monod. And I may be myopic but I think that Jim’s lab was actually the best lab in the country.

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).