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Harold Varmus on how winning a Nobel Prize changes your life

"It puts a medallion around your chest that can't be denied," the Long Island native says.

Dr. Harold Varmus at an award dinner in

Dr. Harold Varmus at an award dinner in Manhattan on May 7, 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Thos Robinson

Dr. Harold Varmus knows something about winning a Nobel Prize – and the honor's impact. In 1989, Varmus and collaborator J. Michael Bishop were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for a discovery that transformed the understanding of cancer's biology and provided the foundation for targeted cancer therapies.

Varmus, a "child of Long Island," was born in Oceanside and grew up in Freeport. He is a former director of the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, and has a lab at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Newsday spoke with Varmus this week, after this year’s Nobel in physiology or medicine was announced. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Q: How did winning a Nobel Prize change your life?

A: Well, I think everybody who's gone through this recognizes in retrospect that it changes the view that others have of you, for better or for worse. It puts a medallion around your chest that can't be denied. And the big question is not what time did you receive the call from Stockholm. Everybody gets that call, and everybody has some level of surprise and pleasure from it. But the main thing is it gives you an opportunity, which is both a danger and potential blessing, to have a big influence on how research is done, and how the country perceives the statements made by scientists. Because people do turn to you for advice. They turn to you with job opportunities. You can turn your life into being a professional opinionmaker. That has its own dangers, because there are temptations to speak out on issues that you may not be as familiar with as you should be. But it also gives you opportunities to influence the way in which science is done, and people understand the nature of research and its benefits to the country.

In my own case, it took me from being a relatively obscure scientist working at the University of California to somebody whose views were listened to, and who had an opportunity to serve as director of the NIH, and later the NCI, and Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. All those jobs were extremely satisfying, and doing it with that little emblem of Swedish honor around your neck makes it a little easier, frankly. So I always encourage people, including my friend Jim Allison, whose prize was announced today, to make use of that opportunity, and not give in to the fairly trivial opportunity of giving high-priced lectures in various places, but to keep your eye on the ball and recognize that your influence is magnified.

Q: What advice would you give Jim or this week's winners about how to approach the potential changes that winning this brings to your life?

A: Well, I'm not going to be that directive. I'd just recommend to someone like Jim, and I have done that already, that he consider carefully what he can now do. He is a famous scientist already. His work is very well known in the scientific community, and even in the larger public. But now, when you’re called the Nobel laureate, there is an audience waiting to hear what you have to say, and his influence can be very powerful.

Q: Instead of discussing the call from Stockholm, could you tell me about a memory or two that stand out from the time when you were named a winner?

A: Not really. I've done that before. It's boring. [Both people laugh.]

Q: What role did Cold Spring Harbor play in your career?

A: Cold Spring Harbor was one of the first places in which I learned the joys of talking science ... to a wide range of people. Indeed, the first meeting I attended there, in 1969, was a meeting on the topic I was then working on as a trainee at the NIH – something called the lac operon – genes and E. coli. And at that meeting, people like me who were lowly postdocs trying to learn the art were interacting with Nobel laureates like Jacques Monod, and Jim Watson, and recognizing the democracy of science at the same time we recognize that it’s an intellectual battlefield in which great things happen. And that was exhilarating for me.

Since then I've done a lot of things with Cold Spring Harbor. Many meetings, in fact I'm going to a meeting there next week – one of my favorite topics. And over the years I've taught in courses, run meetings, written books, and written articles for their journals and supported their new efforts in publishing scientific preprints. It's a great institution, one that I'm extremely loyal to. I had my 60th birthday party there, and so Cold Spring Harbor and I have been close allies, and I'm a huge supporter.

I did grow up on Long Island, as you know, on the South Shore, not the North Shore. Didn't know much about Cold Spring Harbor at that time, but certainly in the years that followed my indoctrination in 1969, Cold Spring Harbor has been a major part of my life. I admire the science done there, I collaborate with the scientists who are there now, the New York Genome Center, which (is) one of the places where I’m employed these days, we have a major project that's being run in significant part by investigators at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab, and I'm a huge fan of the lab and very proud that it's on Long Island.

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