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Mario Capecchi

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — "A husband," "a father" and "a scientist" are the phrases the University of Utah's Nobel laureate selected when asked to describe himself during an international get-acquainted press conference Thursday as part of Nobel Week.

"What I enjoy doing is science," said Mario Capecchi, distinguished professor of human genetics and biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the U. "It's a passion. It's something that gives me an enormously good feeling and a sense of discovery. ... Working on new things all the time is exhilarating."

Science, he added, "comes naturally to me."

The forum featured Capecchi and the two scientists with whom he shares the Nobel Prize in medicine, Sir Martin J. Evans of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Today, they'll share a more formal podium as they deliver their Nobel lectures. And early next week, they'll share a substantial cash prize — $1.54 million — as well. They also each receive a Nobel Prize medal.

The trio brought a light touch to the rather formal setting at the Karolinska Institute, where their selection as Nobelists had been made and announced in early October.

When a reporter asked what the men would do with their medallions, Evans quipped that "I shall carry it closely upon my person." That prompted Smithies to joke that he would have a replica made "so no one will know which one to steal."

At that point, Capecchi started laughing and didn't answer beyond a quiet "I can't beat that."

But when the predictable "how are you going to spend the money" came up, Capecchi earned a laugh by noting that he would give half of it to the U.S. government, referring, of course, to taxes.

Capecchi said the most important traits for good scientific research are attention to detail, which determines whether the research is successful, and imagination. "Think about the future, not today or tomorrow, but look way into the future."

The three men share the honor for their individual research and discoveries involving use of embryonic stem cells to knock out genes in mice. The ultimate goal is to understand disease and learn how to treat it. Capecchi and Smithies independently found ways to target specific genes, but it was when each combined his own efforts with Evans' work that the science moved from the petri dish into mice.

Capecchi said the public has "already figured out" the importance of the research, even if it involves use of embryonic stem cells, which is controversial.

But he added that research should always be given serious thought. "I think you always have to ask yourself, if you don't do something, is that also immoral?"

On Thursday morning, all the Nobelists paid individual visits to the Nobel Museum in the "old town" part of Stockholm. Capecchi's wife, Laurie Fraser, who with daughter Misha also made the trip, said they decided to walk back to the hotel and stopped for a while to enjoy a Christmas fair set up on the narrow, shop-fronted streets.

Although they have a very busy, planned-out schedule this week — from the time Capecchi's tux was to be fitted to a variety of formal dinners, press opportunities and events — they're also finding time to enjoy several friends they invited to attend the ceremonies. The Nobel Foundation sets aside about 15 tickets to the awards ceremony and banquet so that each Nobel laureate can invite extended family or friends.

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, and there have now been 797 Nobel laureates, including 20 organizations and 34 women. The youngest Nobelist was Lawrence Bragg, just 25 when he shared the physics prize with his dad. This year's winner in economics, Leonid Hurwicz, 90, is the oldest, receiving the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in economics.

Winners have included several married couples, a mother and daughter, a father and daughter (same daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, whose parents, Marie and Pierre Curie, each shared a Nobel Prize with her but not with each other), a pair of brothers and six father-son combos.


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