Tuesday, June 3 2014, 03:33 PM MDT
Person 2 Person: Mario Capecchi
Dr. Mario Capecchi is a Nobel Prize winning scientist who grew up homeless and alone on the streets of Italy. Then after moving to the United States and living in a Quaker commune, Dr. Capecchi began to focus on his studies. He attended Antioch College, MIT and Harvard prior to becoming a professor at Harvard. Dr. Capecchi eventually moved to the University of Utah where his research with mice led him to win one of the world's most prestigious awards, a Nobel Prize. This week Shauna Lake sits down with Dr. Mario Capecchi "Person 2 Person."
Below is a transcript of Shauna Lake's interview with Dr. Mario Capecchi.
SHAUNA LAKE: What an honor to interview a Nobel Prize winner. Tell us about the invention.
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Sure. What our lab is famous for developing a way of changing genes. Our animal is mice, and what we can do is change any gene any way we want and then we can ask what happens. And then that way we can tell, what are the different genes, what are they doing, and what are they required for anywhere from making the mouse to the behavior of the mouse after it's born.
SHAUNA LAKE: Where did you find the passion for science?
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: My uncle raised me in a commune back in Pennsylvania, and he was a physicist. So very early I was introduced to science. It was a Quaker community, and what they believe in is service to people, and they also believe in trying to cure problems worldwide.
SHAUNA LAKE: Would you describe that part of your childhood as happy? Living in the commune? You liked it?
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Oh yeah. It was fantastic. No it was really...I mean it was very nurturing because you know I came from a very different environment prior to that and so it was a place where essentially you felt important. And what they stressed was education and simply saying we don't believe in frills, but we do believe in the development of your mind as well as your soul.
SHAUNA LAKE: You talked a little bit...you alluded to your earlier life before you got to the commune. I mean I was just shell-shocked when I read some of the things you endured.
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Well I was lucky. I was not lucky in the situation but lucky that I survived.
SHAUNA LAKE: You literally were on your own as a four-year-old boy.
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Yes from four until nine.
SHAUNA LAKE: And just fending for yourself for food.
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Yes.
SHAUNA LAKE: For shelter.
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Yes.
SHAUNA LAKE: For love.
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Yep.
SHAUNA LAKE: I mean what does that do to a child?
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Well I think they become very resourceful. One of the things...my mother was in a concentration camp, and I think she actually went through much worse conditions than I did because a child doesn't question what exists. They don't know. They haven't been shown that one's right and one's wrong. They don't see inequalities. That's simply life. What you do is simply survive as well as you can, and the only things that were important were shelter and food. And so that's what I was mainly concerned with, and I never questioned anything else. And then afterwards actually, my mother found me, she took about two years to retrace my steps because I'd have to move. You know once your cover is blown then you have to go to the next city and the next city and the next city.
SHAUNA LAKE: Did you ever feel kindness in those situations when you were fending for yourself?
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Occasionally, not very often. I think I remember I ate one meal at a table, a hot meal, during that whole period of time. And that was kindness, but that was it.
SHAUNA LAKE: Does it affect you today still?
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: It's possible. I think the way I handle it is simply not to think about it and simply ignore it and say, "That's the past and now what we're concerned with is the present and the future."
SHAUNA LAKE: So fast forward. You came to the United States, went to several schools and actually ended up becoming a professor at Harvard. Did you like that environment? Was it something you felt well suited for?
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: I liked it, and I think they're very talented people, very talented scientists. But one of the things I found as a shortcoming was every day you were asked, "What's new?" And as a consequence you start working on problems that after a few days you have a solution. But the problem that I wanted to work on, I knew was going to take a very long time. I didn't know how long. It turned out to be ten years, and I think coming to Utah I had that luxury of being able to sit back and work on something that would really take a long time to develop it and see it through to its utility.
SHAUNA LAKE: Was there ever a time where you wanted to quit, where you just thought, "This isn't going to work."
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: No and in fact one of the things that happened was that I submitted...once I had the idea put together the one thing you do is submit a grant and see if you can get money to support it, and they said it wasn't possible. And rather than taking that as rejection I took that as a challenge. I knew essentially how to go about it, I just didn't know exactly how and whether we would succeed, and the problem with developing a technology is you never know whether it works until you have it, the very end stage.
SHAUNA LAKE: Would that little boy who was on his own from four until nine ever believed this story?
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: I'm sure he was never thinking about that. It was all he was thinking about was food. But you know it was amazing that when you first come over, every kid that's ever been in Europe at the time thought of the United States as being infinitely rich. The roads, I thought would be paved in gold. But what you find actually is much more important and that's opportunity mainly through education. I think that opens all the doors.
SHAUNA LAKE: Perfect note to end on Dr. Capecchi. Thank you so much...nice to get to know you "Person 2 Person."
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Good good.
SHAUNA LAKE: Thank you.
DR. MARIO CAPECCHI: Sure. Thank you.
-Written and produced by Leslie Tillotson
(Copyright 2014 Sinclair Broadcasting Group.)