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Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi Encourages Postdocs, and Third Graders, To “Dream Big”

Mario Capecchi performs open-heart surgery in third-grade classrooms. He revels in answering the questions he gets as he reveals the wonders of the pumping heart to the children.

Of course, the surgery is performed on a mouse, but it’s hard to imagine a better way to get kids asking questions about biology than by closing their textbooks, and showing them what it really looks like at close range.

I met Capecchi, a Nobel laureate in medicine from the University of Utah, while he was in town to give a keynote speech at a fundraiser for the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research, a Seattle nonprofit that supports K-12 science education. Capecchi won the Nobel in 2007 for his work on developing “knockout mice” a now-standard lab technique in which scientists delete a certain gene in order to pinpoint the role it may play in causing disease. He came to speak in Seattle at the invitation of one of his former graduate students, Kim Folger Bruce of Seattle Children’s Hospital, who played a key supporting role in this discovery.

Besides making groundbreaking discoveries, part of the job of being a scientist involves explaining the work to people at all levels of education to encourage greater public awareness of science, Capecchi says. That includes young people, who may choose to become the next generation of scientists themselves.

One big reason why Capecchi feels responsibility to encourage students comes from his own personal background. As a child during World War II, he lived alone on the streets of Italy while his mother was in a concentration camp, and suffered much privation, before eventually reuniting with his mother after the war and moving to the U.S. when he was nine. His telling students to overcome obstacles in their studies clearly come from the heart. “I’ve had sort of a weird background,” he says.

Third-graders aren’t really in a position to understand the significance of things like knockout mice, but Capecchi said he likes talking to young children about science. “At that stage they’re very curious. Most of our education system destroys that inquisitiveness.” Science should be taught in a way to encourage curiosity over strict memorizing because flexibility is so crucial in science where techniques and paradigms can change rapidly, Capecchi says. Even those who don’t become scientists should learn it, he said, as so much science is supported by the public, but major science funding agencies like the National Institute of Health are often very conservative in where they give grant money. “The public in a sense is fearful of science. We have to break that down,” he says.

He compared the current controversy over stem cell research and how much should be done to the furor over so-called test tube babies in the 1970s. Millions of Americans are born with help from fertility clinics now, and there’s not much concern over the issue anymore, partly because the public has a better understanding of the topic. Better science education would help the public understand the promise of stem cell research, while also being careful to have respect for “legitimate ethical issues” people have with the line of research.

Capecchi recommends scientists should be ready to set up their own lab in their 20s, instead of paying their dues until their 40s as is common in the U.S. This is a balancing act because young people need to push themselves hard to attain that status in their 20s, and they shouldn’t push so hard that they burn out, he says.

Capecchi encourages scientists working in his own lab to be independent, even though sometimes research takes longer that way. What matters is that at the end they are still curious and still ask questions, even if getting funding for the research may be difficult. It’s the kind of message even third-graders understand. “Always dream big,” Capecchi says.

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