Claire O’Connell, contributor
You could say Jim Watson had an ideal postdoc experience. Sixty years ago, when he was still in his 20s, he was a postdoc in the Cavendish Lab at the University of Cambridge when he played a central role in one of the biggest discoveries of the 20th century. Along with Francis Crick, he co-authored the Nature papers in 1953 that proposed the double-helical structure of DNA and outlined a potential mechanism for how that structure could allow DNA to self-replicate. The work earned him a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 and a place in the history books.
So what advice would Watson give to postdocs today? On a recent trip to Dublin, he took an hour out of a hectic schedule of speaking events to sit with a group of post-docs from the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI). His key messages for the early-career scientists were to travel, talk and take on something big.
“Travel is absolutely essential,” Watson told the post-docs during a relaxed interview with TBSI director Prof Luke O’Neill. “In general the best work at any given time is not being done in your own institution, it is in other places, so go to these other places and meet them. And if you meet them sometimes you can invite them to come and work in your place.”
Not known for his subtlety, Watson lamented that many people are now working on ‘boring’ projects and doing experiments without talking to others.“Conversation with the right person is a way to really sharpen your thoughts and make you realise you’re saying something that is not really substantiated by experiments,” he said. “Most of my success wouldn’t have happened without the particular intellectual environment I was in. Having someone as good as Francis Crick that I could talk to, I was very lucky. What brought us together was that we wanted to solve the same sorts of problems – what was the structure of the gene that let it be copied?”
Watson says he is “pleased” rather than proud of his achievements in solving that problem, and admits he has luck to thank too. “I consider myself enormously lucky that I got one so big,” he said, encouraging postdocs to ask themselves what the big five puzzles are in their field and go after one of them. “Do something as important as you can, aim for something which, if you win, people will get excited about… I think there are still a lot of good problems out there – can you restore the memory of someone who is 70 years old and has lost their memory? I think that is a very important question.”
That’s not to say making your mark is easy. In recent years Watson has been exercising his own brain in the area of anti-oxidants and cancer, and he is particularly interested in the potential of the anti-diabetes drug metformin in preventing cancer. “On a good day I will spend three hours reading, and if I am lucky I will spend a certain amount talking to someone,” he said. However, he also admited he was finding it difficult to get his ideas published and to change minds. “Right now I’m feeling slightly lonely,” he quipped.