Mario Capecchi on Jim Watson, Mentor: Honest Feedback
  Mario Capecchi     Biography    
Recorded: 27 Feb 2003

I mean I think—I mean one is [that] Jim really tells you what is on his mind. You never have to guess what he’s thinking about. He simply—you know, if he thinks—I remember at one point it was arranged for me to give a very important lecture to the Harvard audience. And I spent a lot of time preparing it. And I delivered the lecture. So afterwards I went to Jim and asked him what I [he] thought. And his response was [that] he thought that it stunk. I mean it was awful. And, you know, and then - at the time was quite shocking. But what he was trying to tell me was that I was being very specific and, you know, I was interested in the details of the experiments and what they were showing but didn’t go over the big picture. Not showing in a where, how this fitted into a larger context. And most people in the audience—what you have think about is that, I mean a good rule is one that actually is a mentor of Jim’s. It’s actually from Max Delbrück where he says, “Assume that your audience is completely ignorant, but infinitely intelligent.” So that what’s important is laying out the story. Showing you not exactly what the exact experiments, those are important details. But what’s really important is, you know, what are you trying to do. What are the questions you are addressing? And it’s that type of thing that I wasn’t very successful in that big lecture. And Jim let me have it. And I think that’s always true. I mean I think he’s always extremely honest in his appraisal. And he’s not afraid to [what] your reaction to this could be. What he wants to do is convey how he thought about it and why he thought about it that way. And I always look at that, you know, with actual—I mean most of us are usually too modest to simply everybody what’s exactly on our mind. Jim is not afraid to do that at all. He’ll just speel it out as the way he sees it.

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).