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In the darkroom, with gloved hands, he separated the x-ray film from the paper and inserted the film into an automated processor. In a matter of minutes, the machine would spit out the developed film outside the darkroom. Szostak walked to the hallway and waited.
Szostak's headlong dive into science started early. As a precocious 14-year-old high school student, he got a summer job in a lab at a Montreal chemical company, where his mother also worked, testing the ability of fabric dyes to withstand light and detergent. Later, as a teenaged cell biology major at McGill University, he bounced around a few chemistry labs before launching his first true research project: he showed that a simple species of algae called Eudorina released hormones that triggered sexual development.
Science classes of all sorts engaged the talented student; in one memorable lecture, a professor named John Southin described how scientists had deduced the mechanism of DNA replication from test tube observations. “It was so amazing—this long chain of logical deduction between the actual experimental observations,” Szostak recalls. Far ahead of his classmates, Szostak graduated from McGill at the age of 19 in 1972 and headed to Cornell University for graduate school.
He worked with molecular biologist Ray Wu at Cornell, developing a way to make a small snippet of DNA and use it to detect the messenger RNA encoding a specific protein—routine now, but pioneering in the mid-1970s.
As an advisor, Wu was relatively hands off. He let Szostak pursue experiments that interested him. But, “he was always there to talk about things when I needed someone to talk to,” Szostak recalls. After a postdoctoral fellowship in Wu's lab, Szostak landed a faculty job at Harvard Medical School in 1979, at the relatively young age of 26.
There, Szostak adopted a management style similar to Wu's. He assigned each graduate student and postdoc a project in a distinct area of biology. “He had people spread out so they really enjoyed their creativity,” says Terry Orr-Weaver, Szostak's first graduate student at Harvard, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But that also meant they were solely respon-sible for whether a project succeeded or failed. “It's really tough training, but it's the best kind,” she says.
Orr-Weaver remembers a crowded laboratory, with graduate students and postdocs sharing lab benches and squeezed into just two bays. Szostak would often head to the same lab benches to do his experiments. The lab “smelled great, like a bakery” from the yeast they all worked on, and there was tremendous intellectual ferment as well. “He had all these great ideas. There was this kind of buzz about the place,” Orr-Weaver recalls.