author Shigekazu NAGATA

Happy days in Zurich

On 30th Anniversary of Institute of Molecular Biology, University of Zurich
November 1997

On November 3, 1977, a cloudy and cold day, my wife and I arrived at Zurich after the long trip from Tokyo. It was my first trip abroad, and it took 36 hours from Tokyo by stopping at Seoul, Manila, Dacca, and Jiddah. When I told Dr. Peter Curtis and Tada, who were at the airport to pick up, that it was a 36-hour trip, Peter said “Oh, my God!”?The followings are several memories in the days of Zurich.

Everything including European culture and working style in the lab was new for me. In particular, disposable Eppendorf tubes and test tubes gave a big surprise to me. Ned showed me how to use Pipetman. He pipetted water into a new tube, and then threw away the tube into the trash box. I thought I had to recover it from the trash box.

As a graduate student in Tokyo, I never touched DNA or RNA. My first experiment in Zurich was to grow Qb phages. When I got plaques on an agar plate, Charles came to me to say “Congratulation!”. I had to shake hands with him!? Now, when my graduate students succeed in the first preparation of plasmid DNA, I tell them “Congratulation!”.

When I was in Japan, I took the evening courses to learn English conversation. However, immediately after arrival at Zurich, I realized that my English is so poor that I can not communicate well with people in the lab. Two or three months after I arrived at Zurich, I had to talk at a Saturday meeting. Later, I heard from Christine that she thought that some parts of Japanese are similar to English! Charles several times tried to teach me English. One day, he brought “a red paper” and “a box made of lead” He started to say “This is ‘red’ and that is ‘lead’. Please distinguish them.” My answer was “They sound the same for me.”Charles went away with disapointment.

I was in charge for the spectrophotometer. In one day of December of 1978, Charles was preparing RNA from human leukocytes. He came into the cold room where I was working, and started to shout. “Who is responsible for the spectrophotometer? You are responsible for it. It is not working. You can not be responsible even for a small thing ---.”

“Sorry, it was working this morning. What is the problem?”

“It gives a very high background.”

Charles and I went to the spectrophotometer. Yes, it gave a high background. The cuvettes which we (post docs or students) normally use always have some cracks or scratches. But, the cuvette in the spectrophotometer did not have any scratch, and seemed to be new. I asked Charles “What is this?”

He replied “This is a special cuvette for the professor”

I removed the cuvette from the spectrophotometer, although Charles said “Dr. Nagata, the spectrophotometer does not work without a cuvette”.

The spectrophotometer itself did not give high background. Charles then told Joseph “Your buffer is very dirty. Please change it” Joseph changed it, but it still gave a high background. I told him “Why don’t you try just with water”Still high background.

Then, Charles looked at the cuvette, and ran away into his office to check the box of cuvette.

“Es war nicht Quartz, sondern Glass”

In 1977-1980, all restriction enzymes were kept in the locked freezer of Dr. Weissmann. When we need enzymes, we had to ask him for it. “I want to use 5 units of Eco RI. Please give it to me” We had a half-hour discussion with Charles why we need it. Charles usually argue that 3 units must be sufficient for this experiment. Then, he grabbed a pipetman by himself, and gave us 3 units of aliquots. Once a month, the restriction enzymes arrived at the lab from Biolab or BRL. Charles put the new tubes into his locked freezer which was near my bench. One day, after he had transferred the tubes into his freezer, I found many new tubes of the restriction enzymes in the trash box. It seemed that Charles had left the tubes in the delivery box, and threw away the box into the trash box. I went to his office, and told him that many restriction enzymes are in the trash box. He came to the lab to recover the tubes from the trash box, and said “Thank you, but are you always looking for something in the trash box?”

Several people in the lab produced human IFNa in E. coli. After examination with monkeys, the purified protein was put into small vials for clinical trials. One evening, Charles called me into his office, and said “Tomorrow morning, we are shipping this purified IFNa for clinical trials. I will now inject 10 mg of the recombinant IFNa into my own vein. If I was dead by tomorrow morning, please do not ship this protein.” I, of course, advised him not to do such a stupid (?) thing. But, he did. When I came back to the lab from my quick supper, Charles had left the office for a party in town. Next morning, I heard from Rose-Marie that Charles suddenly fell down during the party, and could not stand up. He could not come to the lab for three days. This was the first demonstration of the strong side effects of IFNa in man.

The days in Zurich (4 years and 2 months) were the happiest days in my life. I have learned many things in Zurich, and enjoyed it very much. I always wish I could have the same days once again. At least, I hope that my graduate students could have a similar experience in their life.

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