Big Advice From Mario Capecchi
May 30, 2014 10:00 AM
We should all be as unbound in our worldviews as Nobel Laureate Dr. Mario Capecchi, who spoke last weekend at the School of Medicine class of 2014 commencement.
Dr. Capecchi changes his field of research every 7 years or so. Nearly three decades ago he studied bacterial viruses, moved on to mammalian genetics, developed the “knock out” mice—for which he shares the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2007—and, more recently, developmental genetics of the nervous system and behavior. Today he is consumed with comparative genomics across multiple species. I can only imagine what he will tackle in 2021. He is a scientific super-star; a real-life Charles Darwin and I, for one, am honored to be working 100-yards from his office.
At commencement, he shared his dynamic passions for discovery and research. In it, he questioned the boundaries and explored the impact of science that this generation could see—from cancers to infectious and chronic diseases. Our graduates, Mario advised, are best suited to realize this impact.
Not long ago, we asked Mario to reflect on his life, his career of discovery, and his approach to science. You can hear it for yourselves at www.algorithmsforinnovation.org “Flights of Imagination.” In that video, Dr. Capecchi says something that I wish I had heard when I was graduating from Medical School:
“It takes the same amount of effort to work on big questions or little questions. So why not work on big questions?”
For the Class of 2014, looking out to a future of 30, 40 or even 50+ years of meaningful work, now is their opportunity to set that goal. Now is their chance to make their work “Big.” For a career in research, asking “Big” questions can change the world, as Dr. Capecchi’s discovery of transgenic mice opened up the entire field of mammalian genetics and impacted medical science and practice for all of humanity. If caring for patients, thinking “Big” can reform entire systems—by treating each patient, one-by-one, as carefully as a family member, and then amplifying that wisdom through clinical trials and clinical research; helping to develop health care policies for the nation; or taking one’s work global. For those who engage in teaching, lives can be transformed everyday in the classroom and beyond—teaching materials can go online to help thousands without access to good teachers, and materials can be designed electronically to make lessons more accessible to students across a range of learning styles.
Thomas Edison put it well, “There’s a way to do it better, find it”.
Mario Capecchi started his life in Verona, Italy in 1937. There he overcame great hardship during World War II—surviving hunger, the loss and reunification of family and home, and so much more—to come to the U.S. and receive his Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University under the guidance of Dr. James D. Watson (the Watson of Watson and Crick double helix DNA fame). As one of his post-docs described him, "He is very open to new ideas and will almost never say no if something broadens the scope of the question."
Dr. Capecchi inspires us all. His advice applies whether we’re 26 years old and in cap and gown, or if we’re a bit further along in our lives. We could all broaden the scope of our questions, of our work. We, as a health system, can think “BIG”. We can aspire to transform academic medicine, and collectively make the impact he knows we can.comments powered by Disqus