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U.'s Nobel scientist survived WW II horrors, found opportunity in America

Published October 9, 2007 2:09 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Mario R. Capecchi came to the University of Utah 34 years ago, he settled into a home at the top of a nearby canyon.

The home gave him space to gaze off into the distance. And that, he said in a 1997 interview, "influences the way you think."



It's that ability to take the long view that has distinguished Capecchi as a scientist, the first at the U. to be awarded a Nobel Prize. His unique insights into molecular biology have opened paths to understanding how hundreds of diseases work and have made their treatment, if not prevention, future possibilities.

Given his background, it might seem an improbable achievement - or evidence, as Capecchi once said, that creativity in science results from an ''abrasive juxtaposition'' of life experiences that, unlike the mouse genes he studies, can't be replicated.

''Everybody get out their hanky,'' Capecchi said Monday as he responded to a question about his upbringing, drawing laughs at a news conference held at the U.

He was born in Verona, Italy, in 1937 to Lucy Ramberg, an American poet, after her brief relationship with Luciano Capecchi, an Italian air force officer. Capecchi's mother taught literature and poetry at the Sorbonne in Paris and, as part of the Bohemian movement, thought it was possible to ''wipe out fascism and Nazism with a pen.''

In 1941 that political activism brought the Gestapo to their home in the Tyrolean Alps. Ramberg was arrested and sent to the prison camp in Dachau, Germany. Capecchi was just 3 1/2 .

A child of war

Capecchi said his mother had prepared for such an eventuality by selling their possessions and giving the proceeds to an Italian peasant family who agreed to care for him.

A year later, when the money ran out, the family turned Capecchi out. He wandered the streets - sometimes alone, sometimes with other homeless children - and found occasional refuge in orphanages or with his father, whom he described to Scientific American as a ''very loose soul.''

''My recollections of those four years are vivid but not continuous, rather like a series of snapshots,'' he said in the acceptance speech he gave in 1996 after winning the Kyoto Prize. ''Some of them are brutal beyond description, others more palatable.''

The years on the streets left Capecchi severely malnourished and, in 1945, he landed in a hospital south of Verona. To keep him from running around, Capecchi was kept naked on a bare bed as he fought famine-induced fevers. He spent a year at the hospital.

His mother, liberated from Dachau in 1945, found him there after an 18-month search. Lucy Ramberg arrived on her son's ninth birthday - October 6, 1946 - and bought him a Tyrolean outfit complete with feathered cap.

Capecchi speculated about his childhood with his Japanese audience. Was it those experiences - which gave him the self-reliance, self-confidence, the ingenuity and the ability to concentrate for long periods - that have benefited him as a scientist?

''Looking back, I marvel at the resilience of the child,'' he said then. ''In the absence of any apparent hope, the will to survive persists.''

Land of opportunity

Capecchi and his mother left for America days after being reunited, using tickets purchased by Edward Ramberg, his uncle.

''I literally was expecting the roads to be paved in gold,'' Capecchi said, ''and what I found actually was just opportunity.''

Mother and son settled in a commune near Philadelphia that Edward Ramberg, a Quaker and talented physicist who developed the first lens for the electron microscope, helped start. Lucy Ramberg was psychologically devastated as a result of her years at Dachau, and Capecchi's care fell to his aunt and uncle.

''I was given few material goods but every opportunity to develop my mind and soul,'' Capecchi said in 1996.

At his Quaker high school, Capecchi was a ''not-serious student.'' He loved sports and played football, soccer, baseball and was ''particularly proficient at wrestling.''

Capecchi went on to Antioch College, where he has said he found ''great pleasure in the simplicity and elegance of mathematics and classical physics.''

Antioch required students to spend every other quarter working. Capecchi's first assignment was teaching sixth-graders at a public high school in Long Beach, Calif. As time went on, he spent those quarters in scientific work; a stint at MIT introduced him to molecular biology.

Heading West

Capecchi went from Antioch to Harvard University - then the top research center for molecular biology and home of renowned scientist and Nobelist James D. Watson, who in 1953 co-discovered the structure of DNA.

It was under Watson's mentorship that Capecchi learned to ''not bother with small questions, for such pursuits were likely to produce small answers.''

He spent four years in the Department of Biochemistry at Harvard Medical School before the ''wide open space'' of Utah provided him with ''an entirely new canvas.''

Capecchi joined the U. in 1973, one of several promising young scientists recruited to staff a revamped biology department.

''I had to have a place where I could work on long-term goals,'' he said. At the U., unlike his experience at Harvard, he found a collaborative environment.

''I'm a strong proponent of genetics, mind you, but there are environmental influences,'' Capecchi said Monday, again drawing laughs from his audience of well-wishers.

Even then, students and fellow scientists recognized Capecchi's talent and followed him west.

Among them: Ray Gesteland, now a distinguished professor of human genetics and vice president for research at the U.

''His experiments were always a little more elegant and well-organized and as a consequence, worked better,'' said Gesteland, who was a graduate student alongside Capecchi at Harvard. ''Mario was very quiet early in his career and very focused on what he was doing - unlike the rest of us.''

While his colleagues talk about experiments they wanted to do, Capecchi would do an experiment, make it work and then talk about it.

''When he said something, you listened,'' Gesteland said. ''That's true today. When he says something, you listen.''

While most scientists are ''pretty good'' at moving from step A to step B, Capecchi is ''one of those rare folks who can think of step A and then go to step F,'' Gesteland said. ''His experiments are insightful and move the field ahead a lot.''

The big questions

Outside the lab, Gesteland said his longtime friend dabbled for a time with making stained-glass windows and spends time with his wife, Laurie Fraser, and their 23-year-old daughter, Misha. She was the first person he called after a 30-minute embargo on his 3 a.m. wake-up call lifted.

Capecchi, once an avid fan of his daughter's soccer team, also is passionate about his own physical exercise. U. President Michael Young joked Monday that, as the university's first Nobelist, Capecchi will now be entitled to a designated parking space - probably at the field house, where he gets in a daily run.

"Come rain or shine, he'll go exercise every day," said Linda Oswald, who retired in 2005 after 14 years as Capecchi's assistant, charged with typing his handwritten scientific papers and arranging his travel.

Capecchi, now 70, has followed the lead of his own mentor in challenging students who work in his lab to go after the big questions in molecular biology.

''He's wonderful in the way he gives you all the opportunity so you can develop into an independent scientist,'' said Nadja Makki, 28, who is one of about 20 students working in Capecchi's lab.

''I've learned you have to love what you're doing,'' she said, ''love the science [and] be open to whatever comes and try to make the best of it."

brooke@sltrib.com

Story of a scientist

* Born in Italy. Mario Capecchi was born in Verona, Italy, in 1937 to Lucy Ramberg, an American poet. Ramberg raised him alone after ending a brief affair with his father, Luciano Capecchi, an Italian air force officer.

* War-torn childhood. Ramberg, an outspoken critic of fascism and Nazism, was arrested in 1941 and sent to the Dachau prison camp. Capecchi lived with a peasant family, then was homeless. Liberated from Dachau in 1945, Capecchi's mother found him in a hospital and brought him to the U.S.

* Drawn to science. He lived in a Quaker commune near Philadelphia before attending Antioch College, then headed to Harvard University for graduate work in the lab of Nobelist James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double-helix structure.

* Going west. He spent four years in Department of Biochemistry at Harvard Medical School before joining the University of Utah in 1973.

* Attracting awards. Capecchi's work on gene targeting in mice drew the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences in 1996; as well as the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and the National Medal of Science, both in 2001; and the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday.

- Brooke Adams

 

 

 

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