Capecchi is honored at Salt Lake gala

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2008 12:23 a.m. MST

Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi addresses friends and colleagues at the Grand America Hotel Saturday night. He answered questions from the crowd and said he hopes to continue studying genetics.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

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Following official recognition from the Oval Office and the Nobel Assembly in Stockholm, it was Utah's turn Saturday to honor its recent Nobel Prize laureate — Mario Renato Capecchi.

His move to Utah may not have been "immediately obvious to the outside world," said University of Utah Vice President for Research Ray Gesteland, "but it was a move to something that had been carefully crafted and highly evolved ... to a physical environment wide enough to make you stretch for it."

Gesteland said that from the moment Capecchi began experimenting with tiny glass needles, injecting DNA into nuclei, he's known what he was doing and for what he was working. Capecchi completed all of his noted gene-targeting research at the U., making it the seventh public institution nationwide to ever hold a Nobel recipient.

"This is exciting for the university, this is exciting for the community and this is exciting for the state," said U. President Michael K. Young.

Nothing but words of praise were given as the U. researcher stood humbly nearby. After four months of traveling across the country and abroad, representing his world-renowned research that is "changing the face of medical treatment for all mankind," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, Capecchi was presented various tokens for his significant recognition at the black-tie gala at the Grand America Hotel.

Among the gifts presented were two reserved parking spaces at the U.'s campus, as well as the naming Mario R. Capecchi Drive, extending from Foothill Boulevard to Primary Children's Medical Center, and $2 million for two endowed chairs in genetics and biology, from the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Foundation at their Institute of Human Genetics at the U.

"We hope it will fuel your passion to recruit and research," Eccles Foundation Chairman Spencer Eccles said. "Now the best is yet to come."

The wife of the distinguished scientist detailed the sequence of their lives since the announcement in October that transformed them, even down the trademarked pair of black, patent-leather clogs Capecchi wore to the official ceremony.

"It's just been a wild ride," Laurie Frazier said. She called the joy and pride seen and felt in the faces of Utahns everywhere their greatest reward. "We hope it happens to other scientists in the state of Utah."

Hundreds in the Grand Ballroom applauded the Italian-born researcher, known for his quiet amplitude. Among them were about 50 high school students personally invited by Capecchi himself, representing "the future generations of Nobel Prize-winners" he has mentioned in former press briefings.

An "Ask Mario" feature allowed Capecchi to answer various questions from the crowd, providing insights to his personal life and love of Patsy Cline, as well as controversial issues of ethical appropriateness, promoting scientific literacy and his goals for the future.

Words such as optimist, dreamer, brilliant, tenacious, humble, unassuming, complex, multifaceted, insightful and pioneering marked Capecchi throughout the night, bringing his incomprehensible scientific contribution closer to home, and to a more personal level for all of those who worked closely by his side throughout the years of research.

"Without the help of all the people in Mario's labs throughout the last 38 years, his colleagues and friends, and family, Mario would never have been in the position to be considered for this prize," Frazier said.

"I'm looking forward to making contributions worthy of further pursuit," Capecchi said, projecting the next 20 years of his career, adding that he hopes to stay at the U. and continue studying human genetics.


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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