Joan Steitz — James Watson

LC: Obviously gender and ethnic minorities have been and continue to be underrepresented in science. Where do you think we are in the process of moving towards inclusivity in science–what’s gotten better and what do we still need to work on?

JS: Well I think in terms of outright stuff except for outright sexual harassment, I think things have gotten a lot better because people know enough about this area. It has sort of seeped into society and academia that nobody feels like they can say really blatantly racist or sexist things in public. Maybe they do it at the dinner table or at home, but nobody feels that they can do that. And so in that sense it’s gotten better, it’s gotten much better in terms of the recognition of everybody that this has been a factor in where we are now. 

And that there is not equity and I also consider this phenomenon of stereotype threat or social identity threat to be even perhaps a more important issue. I’m sure you didn’t see this but yesterday there was a fabulous lecture, a lecture in memory of my husband was given by Venkatraman Radhakrishnan about his life and science. He is currently the president of the royal society of London. He was here as a postdoc so I’ve known him since that time and he’s a wonderful person and a co-nobel prize winner with my husband. 

And he talked about his life coming from India and going to a small college in the US and then becoming a physics PhD. And one of the things he said is sort of his last slide things to think about was that everybody suffers from imposter syndrome. And it’s probably worse if you’re either racially or gender-wise in the minority but it happens to everybody and it’s something that everybody should think about and know about so he was saying the same thing–that this is really important. 

LC: I don’t know if you want to comment on this, more than okay if you don’t, but I know that James Watson was your PhD advisor early on in your career and I think recently he lost his affiliation with Cold Spring Harbor and things of this sort for racially charged and gender charged tweets. 

JS: He wouldn’t tweet those comments, they were recorded by somebody. 

LC: Do you think that this is an important part of making an example of these things? 

JS: No, I think in this particular case it’s wrongdoing because he’s a 91-year-old person who has been very ill for the last year because he was in a bad crash. And I think it’s an injustice. 

Jim is a true eccentric. He loves shocking people, and he has always been that way, but it has gotten worse as he has gotten older. Jim, I mean he is a real product of the culture he grew up in. You know I think I’m only 13 years younger than he is. It was just a different sort of mindset about the role of women and the role of minorities in anything having to do with society. One can see this in the books he’s written. 

But one thing that I must say… I don’t know if you saw the NPR series called American Masters?… Well there’s a whole series about prominent people and they did one on Jim and I was interviewed on that for a whole day. And what they did was to select out of my comments okay things, but they basically eliminated all of the positive things that I wanted to say about him because they had an agenda. That was working towards what you’ve just cited. Had I known that, I would have refused to be interviewed by them, had I known that this was what they were going to do regardless of what I had said. 

And what I had told them, and what I will tell everybody, is that Jim is a scientist, and when it comes to valuing other scientists, he somehow, I don’t know what the basis is, he sizes people up and decides whether this person would make valuable contributions to science. And if the answer was yes, it didn’t matter what gender you were, where you came from, any of that stuff. If it was positive it was positive and if it was negative it was negative, but it was purely based on what he decided your future possible contributions to society were. And he was a fabulous advisor because he treated everybody that way when it actually came to interacting with people, despite what he said in his books and despite what journalists have caught him saying. So that’s why I think it’s sort of unfair because at this point he’s old, he’s been very very ill, and I’m sure it hurts. 

And the other thing I should say is if you look at what he’s done during his career, it wasn’t just the science it was the training. Many of his people have gone to be major figures in science and he’s very community minded–he wrote the first textbook of molecular biology and then he went to Cold Spring Harbor and established as a meeting place where people go both for courses and for readings, and it’s been a real Mecca in all of biological science. He was one of the first advisors to the genome project because he believed that this was going to have all sorts of benefits for science and medicine in the future. He worked very hard for that. He has always been an advocate of education–Cold Spring Harbor does a lot of educational stuff with high schools, even little kids, so on. I mean he’s done all this very community-minded wonderful stuff, but he loves opening his mouth and sticking his foot in it because I think he enjoys shocking people. 

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