James Watson

President of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

As one of the team who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, Jim Watson has lived a life leading scientists in the study of DNA. Since he and Francis Crick published their famous paper in 1953, Watson has been on the faculty of Harvard University, served as director and now president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and was the first director of the Human Genome Project.

In 1968, when Watson took over as director at Cold Spring Harbor, the laboratory was a much smaller place, but it held a special significance for him. "It was the place where we all got together and had serious conversations," he says. He’s been happy to have had the chance to lead CSHL as it evolved into a top facility for DNA research. "The study of this information is in some sense the heart of life," he says. "You needed an institution that reflected this fact."

Watson has a competitive streak that has helped him attain some of his success. He and Crick were driven to discover the structure of the DNA molecule before any other researchers working on the same project. "The person who first sees something gets a lot more recognition than the person who sees it second," he notes. He should know—the double helix structure has garnered him not only recognition, but a Nobel prize.

Cold Spring Harbor’s president has a reputation for seeking out unconventional thinking and youthful energy in the people he chooses to staff the institution. For example, Bruce Stillman, CSHL’s current director, was quite young when Watson asked him to fill the director’s chair. And some researchers on the campus say their work is too experimental to be welcomed in other places. For Watson, seeing that unrealized potential is key. "All science isn’t equal," he says, adding that real success comes when you "focus on important problems and bright people who want to do something important. Just don’t work on anything dull."

watson press paraphrenalia
"The person who first sees something gets a lot more recognition than the person who sees it second."

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