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From a Backyard Pond To Genetic Innovation

Craig C. Mello, shown with his wife, Edit, and daughter Victoria, 6, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Andrew Z. Fire. Randy Scott, who taught Mello in a biology class, said he knew that Mello could become a great scientist.
Craig C. Mello, shown with his wife, Edit, and daughter Victoria, 6, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Andrew Z. Fire. Randy Scott, who taught Mello in a biology class, said he knew that Mello could become a great scientist. (By Steven Senne -- Associated Press)

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

More than 25 years ago, Craig C. Mello bounded into a Fairfax High School classroom and told his teacher he was digging a pond in his back yard. He explained that he wanted to see the mini-ecosystem in action.

That teacher, Randy Scott, knew then that Mello had a curiosity and intellect that could make him a great scientist. Some teenagers in the Advanced Placement biology class were satisfied with learning the facts, but Mello always wanted to know the whys -- even if it meant filling a backyard pond with frogs.

So when Scott learned this month that his former student had won a Nobel Prize, he was excited -- but not surprised.

"You could just see the wheels turning with him," said Scott, who retired in 1998 after teaching in Fairfax County schools for more than 30 years. "He wasn't an accepting student. He wanted to know the reasons behind everything."

Mello, 45, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, and Andrew Z. Fire, 47, of Stanford University's School of Medicine are sharing the $1.36 million Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of a gene-regulating mechanism inside cells.

They were studying tiny worms at the Carnegie Institution's laboratories in Baltimore when they found a naturally occurring mechanism that allows cells to shut down individual genes. The discovery has led to experimental treatments for several diseases.

In an interview, Mello's mother said her son's experiences at Fairfax High sparked his interest in science. Mello graduated from the school in 1978.

Scott, who also was Mello's wrestling coach, said he and his students had fun conducting experiments in class. "We had a lot of freedom to do things," he said. "We could act like little scientists."

Scott, who lives in Fairfax County, said he turned on the radio one morning and the announcement of the prize winners was the first thing he heard.

"I said, 'That's got to be Craig,' " Scott recalled. "I was tickled to death. We can only lay a stage for very good students like that and give them an opportunity to succeed."


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