“The world’s full of interesting problems and I think I like to work on problems that aren’t receiving a huge amount of attention”
Transcript of the telephone interview with Jack W. Szostak immediately following the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 5 October 2009. The interview was recorded on the morning of announcement and the interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Jack Szostak] Hello?
[Adam Smith] Good morning. May I speak to Jack Szostak please? This is Adam Smith.
[JS] Yes, this is Jack.
[AS] Oh, hello. Well, congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
[JS] Thank you very much.
[AS] Since you are, presumably in Cambridge, it’s, what, coming up to five a.m. in the morning?
[JS] That’s right, yeah. Although, I live in Boston to be precise.
[AS] Were you awake when the call came?
[JS] Ah, no, actually it woke me up – woke us up!
[AS] That seems a nice way to be woken up.
[JS] It’s a, yeah, very… yes, indeed.
[AS] You have been receiving a great number of awards over the recent years so presumably you had a suspicion that this might be on the way?
[JS] Yeah, well, yes. Especially after the Lasker, people started to say this might happen at some point. But, you know, it’s the sort of think you never know for sure. There are many, many possibilities.
[AS] Exactly, yes. Anyway, happy day. Just looking back at the period of the early 80s when you did the work, together with Elizabeth Blackburn, which is the first part of the citation, you were actually working on DNA recombination then. And, I believe it was at a Gordon conference that you heard her speak and then the idea of this joint experiment, crossing kingdom boundaries was suggested.
[JS] That’s right.
[AS] And, when you showed, together, that telomeres from one species could protect DNA from a totally unrelated species – a very distant species – were you both immediately aware of how fundamental this discovery was?
[JS] Yes, absolutely. The implications that the whole machinery was conserved across kingdoms; that was obvious as soon as we saw that the tetrahymena telomeres worked in yeast. And, basically I could see that it had worked as soon as I saw the results on the jelly. You could tell that we had linear plasmids in yeast and, therefore, that the telomeres were working. So, it was quite an exciting moment.
[AS] Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, of course, who’s the other co-Laureate, have both stayed with telomere research throughout their careers so far. You’ve tended to move through fields so that you worked on telomeres in the early 80s and you then worked on catalytic RNA and the origin of life. What is it that attracts you to new fields as you move through them? Can you say?
[JS] That’s a hard question. There are just … the world’s full of interesting problems and I think I like to work on problems that aren’t receiving a huge amount of attention.
[AS] And do you tend to feel that … do you like to stay with a problem until you’ve got to some kind of solution and then move out of that?
[JS] Yeah, sure, sure. So, I guess, especially after Vicki Lundblad did her work, which I think was really the first experimental work showing that telomere maintenance was essential for avoiding senescence and therefore all of the other things that would follow from that, it became obvious that a lot of people were going to come into this field and move it forward in mammalian systems and explore the linkage to aging and cancer. You know, I know that that kind of work was important but it was also obvious that a lot of people were going to do it. So, by that time, I really was already moving on; most of my lab had already changed directions to the RNA work.
[AS] Right, right. And, the work you’re currently undertaking, where you’re trying to build artificial cells to see what that can tell us about the origins of life. Is that a relatively sparsely populated area at present?
[JS] It’s a very sparsely populated area. I mean there are relatively few labs working in it for, I think, for a number of reasons. I think that it’s actually unfortunate that there are so few labs working on these problems. And most of the people that are, are doing so for reasons that are related to either biophysical studies of membranes, which are more broadly important, or working on nucleic acid chemistry, which as implications in many fields. But, it’s hard, especially for younger people, to get into the field of the origin of life, just for reasons of funding and because the problems are so long term.
[AS] Long term and so basic that there really isn’t any sort of medical application or anything that one could …
[JS] Yeah, it’s completely basic work. Although, I have to say, it’s the same thing when we started working on telomeres. That was totally basic, there were no applications envisaged at all. And yet, to our surprise, it turned out be … to have important medical implications. And, I think even though the work I’m doing now is totally basic, we always keep our eyes open for possible applications. Because a lot of it is uncovering basic physical phenomena or developing new technologies and you can’t really predict when applications will come up.
[AS] Yes, one can never tell. But basic research is certainly where it appears that you like to live?
[JS] Oh, yes. That’s definitely true.
[AS] So how do you think the day will pan out now? Do you’ll maintain any control of it?
[JS] I was just talking with my wife about how we’re going to start doing things today. Getting the kids to school … and I know my institution, Massachusetts General Hospital, has contingency plans so I’m sure there will be a bunch of press conferences and stuff like that.
[AS] Are the kids awake yet and know what’s going on?
[JS] No, not yet, no.
[AS] Are they of an age where they are going to be able to appreciate all this?
[JS] Yeah, I think they’ll be pretty excited. We had a lot of fun taking them to Amsterdam for the Heineken prize. So, actually, we’ll be looking forward to taking them to Stockholm with us.
[AS] Splendid. Well, we happily get a longer chance to speak to you when you come to Stockholm so I’ll very much look forward to that.
[JS] OK, wonderful.
[AS] And, I wish you a wonderful day.
[JS] Ok, thank you very much.
[AS] Thank you very much. Bye.
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