Nobel laureate shares highlights of his career through 'rules of science'

In 1962, James D. Watson, PhD, along with Francis Crick, PhD, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for scientific research that led to the proposal of the complementary double-helical configuration. Their research efforts meant solving the structure of DNA.

In 1962, James D. Watson, PhD, along with Francis Crick, PhD, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for scientific research that led to the proposal of the complementary double-helical configuration. Their research efforts meant solving the structure of DNA.

Sharing highlights of his accomplished research career, Dr. Watson offered some words of advice to the audience of vision researchers and ophthalmologists in what he called, "Rules for Important Science." The Nobel Laureate was the keynote speaker Friday night at a Special Keynote Presentation, sponsored by (OSI) Eyetech Pharmaceuticals, at the Wynn Hotel.

In the course of Dr. Watson's research career, he has had the opportunity to work with many important figures in the arena of genetics, including H.J. Muller, PhD, and T.M. Sonneborn, PhD. Many colleagues at the time, however, thought Drs. Watson and Crick where doomed to fail in trying to prove the existence of the complementary double-helical configuration.

Dr. Watson said the Rules for Important Science are derived from his years of scientific and life experiences. After each rule, Dr. Watson intermingled anecdotes of his scientific work and the work of his research colleagues. The rules are:

  • Chose a scientific objective apparently ahead of its time. In the 1950s, who was into DNA?


  • Only work on problems when you feel tangible success may come in several years.


  • Never be the brightest person in the room. "That's because you can never learn anything," added Dr. Watson.


  • Work with a teammate who is your intellectual equal. "Have someone who can reinforce that you are working on the right problem," he said.


  • Stay in close contact with your intellectual competitors. Dr. Watson pointed out that this rule is important because it's good to know what research your competitors are working on and it allows you to talk with someone who shares your knowledge of the problem.


  • Always have some one to save you. Dr. Watson believes that he and Dr. Crick had every reason to fail in trying to prove the double-helical configuration. He wondered back in the early 1950s, what he would do if two scientists failed. "You need someone to believe in you and give you a second chance," he said.


  • Leave a research field before it bores you. When the two researchers discovered the premise of DNA, they left the field of DNA research. Not that they were bored, Dr. Watson said, but by changing fields, it assures that you don't get bored.

That premise brought about Dr. Watson's decision to leave Harvard University to join Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY. Today, Dr. Watson serves as chancellor of the private, non-profit institution that performs research in cancer, neuroscience, plant genetics, genomics, and bioinformatics.

"The most important rule of my life now as administrator is: make decisions as soon as you can," he said. "If it looks right, and it's 85% right, then assume it's right."