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John Watson

Biochemist and biochemistry professor John A. Watson was born on May 21, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois, the first of eight children. His mother, Catherine P. Berkley-Watson, was a homemaker and his father Hosea Watson, worked as a U.S. Postal Service supervisor. Watson grew up in Chicago’s south side, attending Oakland Public Elementary School and graduating from Parker High School in 1957. After studying at the University of Illinois Navy Pier, he was hired by the American Institute of Baking, where he worked as a research assistant in nutrition research. It was there that his interest in biochemical studies truly crystallized. Watson returned to college to receive his B.A. degree in biology with an option in biochemistry from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1964. After receiving a pre-doctoral USPH Fellowship from the University of Illinois, Chicago Medical Center, Watson earned his Ph.D. degree in biochemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1967. With a post-Doctoral USPH Fellowship, Watson continued his two-year postdoctoral training at Brandeis University.

In 1969, Watson was hired by the University of California, San Francisco as an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics and Medical school Assistant Dean for Student Affairs. Watson’s research focused on the regulation of metabolic pathways, particularly on the regulation of cholesterol and isopentenoid biosynthesis. He demonstrated that the apparent lack of control of cholesterol synthesis is not a marker for cancer cells, that essential non-sterol isopentenoid synthesis is a post-transcriptionally regulated process, and that excess mevalonic acid production in fruit fly cells is shunted through a novel degradation pathway. Watson became a full Professor of Biochemistry in 1984 and Professor Emeritus of the University of California, San Francisco in 2001.

Watson holds memberships in numerous renowned professional societies, including the American Association of Oil Chemists, the National Institute of Science, and the American Heart Association. He is also a founding member of the Coalition for the Advancement of Blacks in Biomedical Sciences. Winner of the 1985 Henry McBay Outstanding Teacher Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) and the 1994 Lifetime Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Watson has been recognized for his work as a research scientist as well as an educator.

John Watson is married to Valerie M. Watson, and they are the parents of four adult children: Lisa, Susan, Katherine, and John.

John Watson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on March 7, 2011.

Accession Number

A2011.004

Sex

Male

Interview Date

3/7/2011

Last Name

Watson

Marital Status

Single

Middle Name

A.

Schools

University of Illinois College of Medicine

Illinois Institute of Technology

University of Illinois at Chicago

Parker High School

North Kenwood/Oakland Elementary School

Search Occupation Category
First Name

John

Birth City, State, Country

Chicago

HM ID

WAT12

Favorite Season

Mid-May, Mid-June

Sponsor

National Science Foundation

State

Illinois

Favorite Vacation Destination

Zihuatanejo, Playa Del Carmen, Cozumel

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

California

Birth Date

5/21/1940

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Bay Area/San Francisco

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Spicy Food

Short Description

Biochemistry professor and biochemist John Watson (1940 - ) researched the regulation of cholesterol and other sterols in metabolic pathways as a professor at the University of California, San Francisco for more than thirty years.

Employment

University of California, San Francisco

Brandeis University

American Institue Banking

Main Sponsor
Main Sponsor URL
Favorite Color

Lavender, Purple

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of John Watson's interview (part 1)

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Slating of John Watson's interview (part 2)

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - John Watson shares his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - John Watson talks about his maternal great-grandfather, James Cornelius, part 1

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - John Watson discusses the Federal Writers' Project

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - John Watson discusses secrecy in his family history

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - John Watson describes Centralia, Illinois

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - John Watson talks about his maternal great-grandfather, James Cornelius, part 2

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - John Watson shares his mother's childhood memories

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - John Watson shares his father's family history

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - John Watson talks about his paternal grandfather

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - John Watson shares his father's childhood experiences

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - John Watson discusses his father's involvement in World War II

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - John Watson recalls de-facto segregation in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - John Watson describes growing up in the Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - John Watson talks about the black community in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - John Watson discusses his parents' personalities

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - John Watson recalls his elementary school

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - John Watson remembers exploring Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - John Watson describes his Gilbert chemistry set

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - John Watson recalls being robbed while selling the "Chicago Defender"

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - John Watson describes the atmosphere at Parker High School

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - John Watson describes race relations in Chicago, Illinois during the 1950s

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - John Watson recalls his experiences at Parker High School

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - John Watson recalls the science he observed on TV as a youth

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - John Watson recalls not having any mentors in science growing up

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - John Watson discusses his classmates at Parker High School

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - John Watson discusses his college years at University of Illinois, Navy Pier

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - John Watson talks about working at the American Institute of Baking, part 1

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - John Watson talks about working at the American Institute of Baking, part 2

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - John Watson describes his experiences at Illinois Institute of Technology

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - John Watson talks his studies at University of Illinois, Chicago Medical Center

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - John Watson describes glyceraldehyde metabolism, part 1

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - John Watson describes glyceraldehyde metabolism, part 2

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - John Watson talks about his postdoctoral work at Brandeis University

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - John Watson describes the changing nature of science

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - John Watson discusses his decision to work at the University of California, San Francisco

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - John Watson recalls the Civil Rights Movement and the push for minority faculty in educational institutions

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - John Watson describes his administrative duties at the University of California, San Francisco

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - John Watson talks about NADPH-dependent reductase

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - John Watson discusses cholesterol metabolism in hepatoma tumor cells

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - John Watson discusses the scientific process and its impact on society

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - John Watson describes his promotions at the University of California, San Francisco

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - John Watson describes isopentenoids, part 1

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - John Watson describes isopentenoids, part 2

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - John Watson discusses halobacterium, part 1

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - John Watson discusses halobacterium, part 2

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - John Watson discusses professional organizations for black chemists

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - John Watson describes the benefits of working with halobacterium

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - John Watson discusses retiring as professor emeritus from the University of California, San Francisco, part 1

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - John Watson discusses retiring as professor emeritus from the University of California, San Francisco, part 2

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - John Watson explains that there are very few risky decisions in science

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - John Watson talks about some of his mentees from the University of California, San Francisco

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - John Watson shares his mentoring strategy

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - John Watson discusses his hopes and concerns for the black communtiy

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - John Watson reminisces over his life decisions

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - John Watson reflects on his legacy

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - John Watson discusses his hobbies and family

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - John Watson talks about his travels to Africa, part 1

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - John Watson recalls his initiation into the Orisa culture

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - John Watson talks about his travels to Africa, part 2

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - John Watson discusses the importance of oral history

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - John Watson discusses how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - John Watson shares advice for students interested in science, part 1

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - John Watson shares advice for students interested in science, part 2

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - John Watson describes his photos

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$6

DAStory

8$7

DATitle
John Watson recalls the science he observed on TV as a youth
John Watson discusses halobacterium, part 1
Transcript
And because when I was a kid, I don't know if you ever remember this program, "Mr. Cox". Mr. Cox came on every Sunday, and, around 6:00 o'clock, and this would--everybody, you know, it was one of those TV, those rare TV moments cause there weren't a whole lot of TV shows. And you'd sit up and look at Mr. Cox, and what I was always excited about, it wasn't so much "Mr. Cox", the program, but DuPont had commercials to come on. And their commercials, in those days commercials were ten minutes (laughter), fifteen minutes, they were long commercials. And I would sit and just wait for the new DuPont commercial each week because at that time they were into synthetics, and "Better Life Through Chemistry" and all of this excitement that would come. And I could just sit there and marvel. And, you know, this was, I was at, I was--$$There was a Wally Cox show.$$Wally Cox, yeah.$$Wally Cox, right. I remember Wally Cox, skinny guy with a bowtie--$$Yeah, yeah--$$--with big glasses.$$Yeah, Wally Cox, that's right.$$He was kind of like what you would call a nerd today.$$Um-hum, but the, DuPont were the people who were sponsoring it, "Better Life Through Chemistry" and plastics and they--I would just sit there and marvel at them taking all of this, putting chemistry to work and making all of these different kind of materials and what have you. And I just, I saw myself as synthetic chemist.$$Now, did Wally Cox play a scientist on the show at all?$$I don't think so.$$I know it was a comedy.$$Yeah, it was a comedy. No, I don't think he was a scientist. He was kind of a nerdy kind of guy, but--$$Right.$$--but it was, so.$$Yeah, I can't remember either what his profession was. But I remember the show, yeah.$$But it was, the commercials were what really drew me or I looked forward to on Sundays, was the commercial.$$Okay, now, did you like the Walt Disney specials on Science when you were growing up?$$I don't remember any Walt Disney specials on science at that time.$$Maybe he did it later on. I know in my generation they did that like "Futureland" and they would talk about--$$No, they had "Mr. Wizard." He was good.$$Don Herbert, right.$$And that was about, that's all I really remember.$Okay, all right.$$So the halobacterium is one of my ventures. You know, you're always looking and so halobacterium, when you fly into San Francisco [California], you see those salt ponds and they're red, and they're red because of special bacteria that grow in that very high salt concentration. And by high concentration, I'm talking about four molar [4M] salt. And when you consider that the salt separating the, circulating in our blood stream is .15 molar [0.15M], this is four molar [4M] salt. I mean it crystallizes. It's almost, I mean you give it a little wink, and it'll crystallize out on you. But there's a bug growing out there that gives rise to the color, what you see in those salt ponds. And that's, and they're called halobacterium. They're extreme organisms, and it's one of a--they're called archaebacteria as a family. And those are the bacteria that grow in these hot springs and Yellowstone and what have you 'cause they can withstand those temperatures. Well, they also can, they're extreme in a wide range of ways. And one of the ways is high salt for the halobacterium. Well, halobacterium is red because it's almost like, have rhodopsin, like in the eye. And it takes the sun, and then it converts it and develops into energy. The organism has as its, part of its cell wall nothing but isopentenoids. They don't have regular, straight-chain, fatty acids in their membrane. They have these branched isopentenoid compounds. And it's an advantage to having branched isopentenoid compounds. One, they are much more fluid because it's branch and it--if they're just flat, and straight-chained, they can get together and move. But now, you've put a kink in 'em, they can't, they become--they retain the fluidity. The other thing is that they're saturated so they're resistant to UV [ultraviolet] radiation, double bonds, don't get all changed and oxidized. They're just, they're stable. And two, they form what we call ether linkages, rather than ester linkages. And ether linkages takes a lot to break an ether linkage as opposed to an ester linkage. So like Crisco [an oil] has ester linkages, and when you wanna make--you just take some lye and boil it up and you break that bond, and you've got soap. You can't take the same kind of triglyceride-like molecule from Halobacterium, throw alcohol, alkali in there and boil it up and break that ether bond. It takes a much more strength, a much more active chemical reaction to break that bond. So they're resistant. That's why these organisms can grow under these extreme environments. And that's in all of the archaebacteria. So they can--that's why they are what they are.