K. What connects you to Montreal?
R. My parents are immigrants. My father was born in 1900 in a small village in Russia and my mother was born in 1902 in a village in Poland. They came to Montreal in the 1920s without any possessions. People much poorer than you can imagine. I was born in Montreal in 1939 and spent my childhood here. Even when I left Montreal to study in the United States, I came back to spend my vacation here with my parents.
K. Why did you go to study in the United States?
R. I wanted to go to McGill University to study physics, but a friend of mine wanted to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) like him. He loved the company. We both applied. In the end, I accepted, but not him. I sat down with my parents and we talked very seriously about whether they could send me to study at MIT. They finally agreed if I worked hard.
K. How did you go from being a physics student to being a biology teacher?
R. After my undergraduate degree in physics, I joined the graduate program in biological physics at the University of Colorado, along with researcher Leonard Lerman, who worked on DNA at the University Medical Center. In the early 1960s, DNA and RNA were not very popular. On the other hand, researchers working in this field found it very exciting. They sent me their interest. After earning a doctorate in DNA replica biophysics, I tried to become a professor in Montreal, but it was not. I accepted a professorship in the United States at Yale University.
K. Which won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989?
R. In 1983, I discovered that RNA was a catalyst. Previously, it was believed that RNA was only used to carry genetic code between different parts of the cell, but it was first discovered that it could play other roles as well. As a scientist, you always solve problems, but you never come up with an answer. I’m so lucky that my research department allowed me to find something. Six years later I was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
K. How did you react when you won the Nobel Prize?
R. Upon hearing the news, I was in my office. I immediately called my wife who was in Paris, and then I called my brother in Los Angeles. Then I went to tell everyone in the lab. They were all very happy. We don’t research for gifts, but are very happy to receive them. I was really happy. Then we went to a big party organized by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm.
K. Is there a link between your research on RNA and the Covit-19 vaccine?
R. No. My research is well aware of the functions of RNA, but it is not about vaccines. It was two women, one in Pfizer and the other in Moderna, who had the idea of making vaccines with RNA, which represents a huge contribution to the rest of the world.
K. What prompted you to return to Montreal?
R. Montreal is my home. This is an incredible city. I talked to the Montreal Medical Research Institute and it was decided that I was going to spend a few weeks a year there. My job will be to talk to students and researchers and advise them. On Thursday, I’m going to give a class to Montreal University students for the first time.
K. What advice do you have for young students and researchers?
R. Whatever you study, work hard. Learn everything you need to learn, do not be lazy.