University of Massachusetts
DISCOVER: What was your first brush with science?
MELLO: Mine was doing field trips and looking for fossils. One of the things that I first remember wanting to be was a "geolisty"—that was the best I could say when I was a kid. That was right after I stopped wanting to be a fireman or a truck driver. Because my dad is a paleontologist who worked with the Smithsonian, I got to see the bones up close and the exhibits behind the scenes there.
What were you doing when you heard you'd won the Nobel?
I was doing a blood-sugar check for my 6-year-old daughter, who has diabetes, so I happened to be awake. When I came back into my bedroom my wife said, "Don't answer the phone, it's a prank call," because when she picked it up before there was no answer. When I saw the phone ringing again, I knew that the Nobel was going to be announced that night or morning, so I was sort of shocked instead. I told my wife, "It might be the Nobels calling."
Who's the first person you called?
I called my parents. They were thrilled, just very excited, and they said the usual congratulatory things, but my mom was very funny about it. In a glib question-as-a-joke sort of way she asked me, "Can you win it again?" My dad was more direct; he always used to say, "There's room for improvement" when he looked at my report cards.
What are you going to do with the money?
I am going to be making a gift of some of the money to our public school system. But we can't afford to give all the money away. We want to use some of it to create some momentum in the field.
Whom do you most admire?
This is a hard question. What I really admire are people like my daughter, Victoria, who don't give up, who have daily medical challenges and medical conditions. They go on with their lives and make the best of it, not giving up even when it's not easy.
What impact has your discovery had on the world?
I think it's too early. Only in 2001 were the first applications in human cells described. This is so new that policy decisions in government haven't occurred yet—I don't think the word RNAi is in even the NIH Roadmap. It's so new, but it's such a tremendous opportunity.
One reason the Nobel community is recognizing it so early is to help publicize the discovery. We need to dramatically increase funding for this type of research, and I want the current administration to take hold of this. My dad likes to compare it to Lewis and Clark's discoveries; if you have these guys come back and say, "Hey, there's this huge continent out there," you should listen to them. This research is like the opening of a new world in medical science. People are, quite literally, dying from a lack of understanding of human disease—we are poised to understand it all. And it doesn't cost that much.
I also want to make sure it's clear that this discovery wouldn't have happened without the work of hundreds or thousands of scientists around the world—they made RNAi readily able to function with genes in organisms.
Where do you have your best ideas?
The absolute best ideas come from talking to my students and colleagues. There's nothing else like it. That's what Andy and I did during the collaboration that ultimately won the prize—Andy is just full of great ideas.
What do you do when you're not doing research?
I love to do things like sail and hike, but they don't give me the satisfaction of knowing the potential of something you've learned in the lab.
What do you want to do next?
I want to make a difference in the world because I believe that's what science is for.