Special Achievement Award in Medical Science
My scientific career has spanned a transformative period in biomedical research. I was ten years old when Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA, and by the time I was in high school the basic outlines of how DNA is replicated and transcribed were known, and the genetic code had been cracked. However, as a teenager growing up in Denver Colorado molecular biology was a far away world for which I had no knowledge.
My father was a Denver fireman, the son of a Greek immigrant, and my mother a housewife and daughter of a Missouri farmer of Irish ancestry. My father wanted me to follow in his footsteps, but my mother had higher expectations. She was therefore delighted when my high school chemistry teacher detected a faint intellectual spark in me and encouraged application for a tuition scholarship at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I was surprised when I received an acceptance letter and a scholarship of $300 per semester: in-state tuition at the time.
When I arrived in Boulder I decided to major in chemistry, but also became interested in biology. Initially the only biology courses available were in the Zoology Department, and I was required to take courses that required massive amounts of rote memorization. I was stuck, as I was bored by Zoology and had decided I did not want a career in chemistry. However, two events occurred that changed the direction of my life. First, while browsing through the bookstore I came upon Jim Watson's "Molecular Biology of the Gene", an elegantly written and illustrated book that captured a spectacularly exciting mix of genetics, biochemistry and structure. This book introduced me to a new and exciting field of biology. Second, in my junior year, the university established a new initiative in molecular and cellular biology, hired new faculty and offered courses in biochemistry and modern cell biology for the first time. I was suddenly transformed from a disinterested observer into a student driven to learn.
Since then my passion for molecular biology has never waned. I have had brilliant and inspiring mentors, incredible colleagues, and extraordinary students and postdoctoral fellows. I have participated in and marveled at the progress that has provided deep insights into the complexity of biology and has directly impacted our understanding and treatment of human diseases. As an undergraduate in Zoology I could not have imagined that in my lifetime there would be such a direct connection between basic research and the clinic.
I am therefore deeply honored to be standing here today to receive this honor from a foundation established by Mary Lasker, whom more than anyone advocated for medical research funding, and played a key role in the rise of the National Institutes of Health. NIH funded my postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard and subsequently my laboratory for over 35 years.
I had the privilege of meeting Mary Lasker in 1980 during her visit to Caltech, where she was searching for a possible role of interferon in cancer. At the age of 80 her passion for finding a cure for cancer was still palpable. So today is not only a celebration of the accomplishments of the Lasker Award recipients, it is also a celebration of Mary Lasker's passion and contributions, and of the entire biomedical research community. I am deeply honored by this recognition, and especially proud to be named as a co-recipient with Don Brown.