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Dr. James Watson, PhD

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. James Watson that took place at the "Winding Your Way through DNA" symposium at the University of California San Francisco in 1992. Dr. James Watson co-discoverered of the structure of DNA with Dr. Francis Crick.

Excerpted from the symposium transcripts with permission of the University of California, San Francisco.

Interviewer: Why did you decide to head the NIH's Human Genome Project?

Dr. James Watson: I thought NIH [was] game to it, and I wanted the Project to succeed and someone had to lead it. I had the advantage that I wasn't doing science so it wasn't going to take me away from the lab bench. I wasn't doing human genome research so I wouldn't be competing with other people. And I'm well known so I've had a good track record for proposing to do stupid things. So I guess my reputation was good and I actually wanted it done. I had lobbied quite a bit actually to get the money for it, so when I was asked I really couldn't turn it down, although I had another job and that always made it difficult because I never really could give it the time that I should have.

Interviewer: What were you trying to accomplish with the Human Genome Project? What was the ultimate goal?

Dr. James Watson: Well, the goal was just to understand life better and when you understand life better you understand disease better. Everyone in their families has particular diseases you'd like to come to grips with. The goal of the Human Genome Project is to understand the genetic instructions for human beings. In doing that, we want to understand the instructions for the mouse, as a comparison with humans and then go down even to bacteria, so we get a whole series of genetic constructions and get some idea how man evolved: How did we start? And how did we get all this complexity? Getting the instructions is a big job; understanding those instructions can consume many hundreds of years....

Interviewer: Let's pretend it's 2042, fifty years from now, and we're looking back on this period of time, these last three or four decades. What are people going to say about this time?

Dr. James Watson: Well, the last fifty years we've been, sort of, coming to grips with DNA. It was in 1944 that Avery published the famous paper which said that bacterial heredity can be changed by adding a DNA molecule to bacteria. The whole century will probably be known as the century of genetics so we will go on from just knowing that genes exist to knowing what the genes are, chemically, to really finding out how their instructions are carried out, in theory, and then finally, by the end of this century, producing a complete set of instructions which then can be used by a whole variety of other biologists in studying other problems.

Interviewer: In terms of evolution, different species have been manipulated in their genetic codes, perhaps not as willfully as we do, but certainly other species have been doing mutations and surviving. We now have a species (human) which has learned to understand its genetic code on a more intimate level. What does that mean?

Dr. James Watson: I think that human beings evolved to the point where we know our instructions occurred by DNA. I think it says that humans are pretty bright! The human brain is pretty remarkable. You know, whales will never know where their instructions come from. They wouldn't be able to pose the question that way, so, it's pretty extraordinary what human beings have done.

Interviewer: You were 25 years old when you helped elucidate the structure of DNA?

Dr. James Watson: I was 24.

Interviewer: That's fairly young--your counterparts were a little bit older. How did that make you feel to be a young scientist doing such profound work?

Dr. James Watson: It was rather a thrill knowing you're five or ten years younger than the other people, just keeping up with them. It was fun-- they would call me by my first name or something so I was lucky I got into sciences at such a young age. But also I had the advantage that I needn't be in a hurry. I was younger than other people so, actually, I didn't have to produce.

I try to get people doing real science at an early age because for most things you don't have to be in school for ten years before you do something important. In school you learn a lot of things you don't ever use in life so one thing it's very lucky if you know what interests you early in life because then you don't take courses on things [you're not interested in].

Interviewer: How did you get interested in science?

Dr. James Watson: I think I was curious about why things happened and I was curious, really, about what life was. You couldn't discuss it in any rational way. You could say, "Living things move," or "Living things have nerves." But finally when we got to genes and found out what the genes are, we can actually see what happened. All biologists have to think in terms of evolution and the building blocks of evolution are the genes.

Interviewer: Are you still curious about life?

Dr. James Watson: Oh, very curious. I eagerly await the next issue of Nature or Science....I just have always loved facts. I guess if I have any vices [one is that] I read too many newspapers each day. I get pleasure from knowing what's happening.

Interviewer: I assume that you are a curious person. Is that a good trait to have?

Dr. James Watson: Oh, yes, if you want to be a scientist. It depends what you're doing. There are similar occupations that I won't name where curiosity might be harmful.

Interviewer: Why is curiosity important to a scientist?

Dr. James Watson: Scientists try to explain why things happen. Why one cell becomes two. Why blue eyes or brown eyes. So, you're trying to explain--in the old days--why the sun came up in the morning, why the days got longer in the summer. You know, there is a whole set of questions [based on what] you saw, things you wanted to know why they happened.

Interviewer: Going back to your position at 24, making the discovery that would win the Nobel Prize, do you think today that biology is a field for young scientists?

Dr. James Watson: Oh, sure. I think you're unlikely to make an impact unless you get into a really important lab at a young age, because you're unlikely to know what problem to work on. We had a nineteen year old boy living with us last year from England. He'd done very well in school and hadn't gone to college but he left our lab and he's going to publish a paper. He was doing the work of a post doc. But, you know, he was narrowly focused. He didn't know about everything but sure, you can do things young. People used to be kings when they were nineteen, generals. Now you're supposed to wait until you're virtually senile. In fact, we sometimes choose senility because it doesn't threaten anyone.

Interviewer: How do you know when you've really made an important discovery as opposed to following a wild goose chase?

Dr. James Watson: In some sense when you can make predictions. You can predict something you don't know and, in the case of the double helix it just looked so good and we thought it was right....We didn't have an x-ray structure of proof for about 25 years, but we knew it was right even though we didn't have this formal method of proof.

Interviewer: What would be your advice to a young high school student that might be considering biology?

Dr. James Watson: I would go to a good university where you think the students are brighter than you are.

Interviewer: Why?

Dr. James Watson: Because then you test yourself. I think if you're intelligent, you underestimate yourself because you know all you don't know. So, if you want to play tennis, you'd better go to a good tennis camp, because you won't know really to what level you can go. I was very lucky; I hadn't planned it that way but I had courses by world experts when I was eighteen and I was in one of the best labs in the world when I was twenty.

So, I first went to a university where the students were bright and I was scared but then, you know, by the time of my senior year I wasn't scared. You have to go through a period where you find yourself. Then, you go to the place where people are interested in what you're interested in. You've got to go to find people that you want to be around. Not just that they're famous, that doesn't help you. You've got to go to a place where [your interests are]. I was interested in genetics and there were two good places for genetics and when I finished college, I went to one of them and, then I ended up where we found the double helix and it was in the best lab in the world. So it wasn't as if the discovery was made in a place where people didn't know what was up. It was the best.

Interviewer: Once you elucidated the structure of DNA, did you look at life differently? Did it answer a lot of questions for you?

Dr. James Watson: Well, it told us that we were right in thinking that DNA was a chain. It also told us how it replicated. So, yeah, we've gone a long way and the satisfaction only lasted a couple of months because then you had to go to the next problem which was "How did the gene really work?" So that occupied me for the next 15 years of my life.

Interviewer: How do you want to be remembered? For the DNA discovery, the Genome Project, as an author, something else?

Dr. James Watson: I guess for a little of all of them.

Interviewer: As a rebel?

Dr. James Watson: I guess I never felt a part of the establishment. Conventional wisdom is often wrong. What you read in the newspaper is often wrong so I guess I'm a fighter. I want to know the truth and I'm not satisfied with people who avoid the truth.

Interviewer: So, in terms of telling that to a biology student, it's OK to buck conventionalism.

Dr. James Watson: You know, if you're going to make the next step in a major scientific thing, no one knows how to do it so you have to, in a sense, reject your professors and say, "They're not getting anywhere, I'm going to try something else." Crick and I did that at one stage and we're famous practically because we thought that what other people were doing won't get anywhere. So, you know, that's part of your education, to know what things won't work and then try to get something to work.

We were, of course, pretty lucky.

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