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James Watson on?genomics, rethinking the status quo in academe, job prospects, and predicting the future at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

At the conclusion of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory phage symposium this weekend, James Watson, bedecked in tennis whites, concluded Sunday?s sessions in his inimitable fashion, touching on a range of topics and cutting straight to the point. On the subject of the advanced bacterial genetics course offered annually at CSHL, he believes it should be around for another ten years but wonders if it will be around for a 75th anniversary, since we can?t predict where science will lead us beyond

By | June 27, 2005

At the conclusion of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory phage symposium this weekend, James Watson, bedecked in tennis whites, concluded Sunday?s sessions in his inimitable fashion, touching on a range of topics and cutting straight to the point. On the subject of the advanced bacterial genetics course offered annually at CSHL, he believes it should be around for another ten years but wonders if it will be around for a 75th anniversary, since we can?t predict where science will lead us beyond the forseeable future. ?I don?t know where genomics will take us,? he said, unable to resist adding ?not that anyone in Kansas will be affected by it.? He had this advice for students and faculty alike. It may be time for a rethink of the conventional biological curriculum. ?Even things we can learn may not be worth learning,? he said, then joked, ?I was bored with the Kreb?s cycle even before I learned it.? On a serious note, he had this to say. ?How long can we churn out students learning DNA repair enzymes ? it?s not fair to students. We?ve got to be practical ? students have to get jobs and [universities] want someone to bring something new to a department, not old.? One safe bet , he says, is to chose an area of research involved in human disease. ?Diseases will inherently give people jobs. How many people in the world should be studying DNA repair enzymes?? On the subject of when to call a career quits, Watson said, ?I don?t believe in retirement ? you should die at your work. You should stay alive [active] if you?re still alive ? but if you?re running a department, you should realize when most of the people [faculty] are dead.? ?I really think focus is very important, you survive by focus,? says Watson. ?It?s too hard to finance research institutes ? you?ve got to run at 80% efficiency. The average university runs at 20% efficiency which lets students have one good course out of four.? As for the future of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Watson predicts that most of the institute will likely end up focusing on study of the brain 20 years from now, and may even include a psychology department. ?This century will be the fusion of psychology and biology - it?s so inherently interesting,? he said, saying that the last century was a fusion of chemistry and biology. While his discussion was tangential at times, his comments left food for thought. After thanking all in attendance and commenting on the role of the Advanced Bacterial Genetics course in keeping the field alive, he breezed out of the room to meet the tennis partner awaiting him at the tennis courts for their 5:30 p.m. match. A partner, he pointed out, 58 years his junior.
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