Basic Medical Research Award
On my application for admission to MIT, my essay on the topic of "Why I want to attend MIT," consisted of just six words: "I want to be a scientist". My path, from that state of extreme naiveté in 1970 to this occasion today, would be impossible without an enormous web of support, consisting of my family, friends, teachers, mentors, bosses, colleagues, collaborators, and my wife Candy Lee. When I applied to MIT, I knew that if I hoped to become a scientist, I needed to be in the right place, but I did not know then that it would matter so much that I should be among the right people. This award is really in recognition of a confluence of events and people in my life, and it is my enormous pleasure that so many of those who have helped me are here today. In the spirit of enforced brevity, I will just say that you know who you are, and I refer everyone to my written comments for more details (and I should also mention a newcomer to my support net, Mike Czech, who hired me into my latest and best job, and who has become my friend and mentor).
I think my six word MIT admissions essay was an attempt to distill a poorly-defined adolescent dream of belonging one day to a grand tradition populated by mythic figures: Einstein, Hubble, Galileo. But, what I learned at MIT, to my relief and delight, was that science is actually done by regular folks! To this day, what I love most about science is that it is such a deeply, intensely human enterprise. The success of the enterprise of science, and of the individual scientist, is derived precisely from the fact that we do it together. We work together in synergy as small teams, such as Candy Lee and Rhonda Feinbaum did to discover the first microRNA; we communicate our treasured, secret data across lab borders, as Gary Ruvkun and I did to enable us to discover the antisense base-pairing between microRNAs and targets; and we publish to the world our findings, so that for example, I opened a journal in 1999, and was astonished by a report from David Baulcombe's group of little RNAs, just like lin-4, way over there in plants.
Not only do we do science as individuals, teams, and as a community of scientists, perhaps most importantly, science is an enterprise of and by the public. One does not have to be a scientist to contribute substantively to scientific discovery. We can be certain that without financial support from foundations and public agencies, particularly the National Institutes of Health, and without the commitment of universities to basic research, we would not be here today, and nobody would know anything about small RNAs, or about so many other things. For me, the Lasker Award is a profound personal honor, because I know that it recognizes not just the creative effort of Candy and Rhonda, Gary and his group, David and his co-workers, but it also emphasizes once again the vital legacy of Mary Lasker and her pioneering work on behalf of publicly supported science in our modern era. Science is among the best things that we do as a species, and I am proud and happy beyond words to be part of it.