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Today in Around Town

Bernie Reeves

Rick Smith
Rick Smith, Senior editor, Metro Magazine
 

Watson a "Hero" in Starry Eyes of a Child Scientist


Inspired by a Godzilla Movie, Chapel Hill 8-year-old Aspires to Find a Cure for Cancer

CHAPEL HILL - Tucker Jones, with dad in tow, grows excited as the esteemed Dr. James Dewey Watson walks into the vast dinner hall in the UNC Alumni Center.

Program in hand, he soon joins a long line seeking the scientist's autograph. Like fans seeking a Derek Jeter autograph, the high-and-mighty of the scientific world with nametags denoting "Dr." this or that from GlaxoSmithKline or Eli Lilly or a major university waited to share a private moment and to get the lefty Nobel Laureate's name scrawled on paper.

Tucker's nametag reads:

"Tucker Jones
Mary Scruggs Elementary School
Chapel Hill, NC"

As Tucker, a second grader, looks up at the tall, lanky Watson, his eyes fill with stars.

"He's my hero," Tucker says, his angelic face breaking into a huge smile. "He was the discoverer of DNA. I was excited when my Dad found out he was coming and told me. I had to meet him."

Tucker, at a mere 8 years of age, is a scientist in a young man's body. He already has set his mind on a path of discovery, due in large part to the inspiration of Watson's pioneering work.

"I want to find a cure for cancer - any kind of cancer," Tucker says instantly when asked what he wants to do in life. "I want to be a DNA researcher."

Perhaps Tucker will be a child prodigy just as his hero, now 72, was. Watson, who grew up in Chicago, enrolled at the University of Chicago at the old age of 15 and by 25 was blazing the trail of DNA discovery.

With stars in his eyes, Tucker Jones waits for Dr. James Watson to finish autographing his program at a dinner Wednesday night in Chapel Hill. "He's my hero," Tucker says.

Tucker's father, Paul, is eager to encourage his son and quickly secured tickets to the first Symposium on Neurogenomics. (Paul has made a name in a scientific world in his own right, the Internet. He is one of the networking gurus at UNC-Chapel Hill that have over the years built one of the world's best campus networks and pioneered content on the web such as the old "Sun site.")

Wednesday night they showed up an hour early to get good front-table seats at a dinner on the UNC campus where Watson delivered the keynote address of the event put on by Cogent Neuroscience and UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke medical centers. Tucker is resplendent in sports jacket and white shirt, his angelic face framed by thick, dark hair.

"The first books he read were science books," Paul says proudly of Tucker.

So how did Tucker even come to know about Watson and his DNA work which earned him (along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins) the 1962 Nobel in physiology or medicine?

"Well, ever since I was a kid, I've been interested in life," Tucker says in a matter-of-fact manner. "Then I heard about DNA, and I got real interested."

Tucker's path to science was triggered in part by a Godzilla movie ("Godzilla vs. Biollante") he watched with his Dad and Mom, lawyer Sally Greene. The 1993 movie pits Godzilla against a gigantic mutated rose called Biollante that includes - you guessed it -- some of Godzilla's DNA.

"I wondered about the way DNA bonded up," Tucker recalls. "Then I read the 'Cartoon Guide to Genetics.' That's what taught me how."

Seeing the Michael Crichton movies "Jurassic Park" and "Lost World" further fueled his scientific ambition.

Tucker Jones, 8, and his father, Paul, were determined to meet Dr. James Watson. Tucker, who says he is inspired by Waton's achievements, wants to be a DNA researcher and to find a cure for cancer.

Tucker, who also plays soccer and computer games and loves math and reading, then talked about DNA and RNA like a PhD. But he uses the entire names - not the acronyms. "Deoxyribonucleic acid" and "ribonucleic acid" roll off his tongue as easily as Mom or Dad.

He even has his own theory about curing cancer.

"To have the T4 virus attack cancer cells rather than bacteria," he responds instantly when asked what he thinks a cure could be. "I want to make cancer cells die. I want to produce more T4 viruses."

Tucker's insight sent an old reporter six times his age scurrying to the dictionary and web for help.

T4 is short for "bacteriophage T4." Bacteriophage, according to the American Heritage College Dictionary, is "a virus that infects and lyses certain bacteria." To "lyse", according to that same dictionary, means "to undergo or cause to undergo lysis." And "lysis" means, in biochemistry terms, "the dissolution or destruction of cells, such as blood cells or bacteria, as by the action of a specific lysine." So what's a "lysine"? It's "An antibody that causes lysis."

One web definition for T4 seemed to sum up part of Tucker's idea: Bacteriophage also means "to eat."

Maybe Tucker is on to something here. T4 as in "T2" (the Terminator movie) certainly has a killer ring to it.

But meeting Watson wasn't enough for this genetic scientist in waiting. On Thursday, Tucker went to the William Friday Center for the final day of the conference to meet Dr. Francis Collins, who is head of the National Human Genome project. Smiling again, he secured Collins' autograph as well.

Collins closes his remarks by saying discoveries based on the human genome may not provide cures for his generation but could for the next.

Listening keenly is Tucker, a member of that "next" generation.

(Note: To find out more about T4, check out www.dform.com/projects/t4/virus.html. Tucker also sent me scurrying for information of Godzilla. For all-things-Godzilla, check out www.stomptokyo.com/godzillatemple. I'm not kidding.)

 

(Got a tip? A story? Send it to rsmith8@nc.rr.com)

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