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Utah's Nobel Prize winner

Mario Capecchi
Mario Capecchi

Mario Capecchi, the University of Utah's first Nobel Prize winner, is an example of how good things can blossom under the most hopeless of circumstances.

By now, news reports have circulated about his desperate childhood. He was born in Italy to a mother who wrote poems and pamphlets that attacked fascism and Nazism. By the age of 4, he found himself homeless, wandering the streets at a time of war and extreme poverty. By the end of the war, at the age of 9, he was confined to a hospital, suffering from malnutrition. His mother, who somehow survived years at Dachau, found him there.

At that point in his life, Capecchi never had been to school. He couldn't read, and he had suffered the kind of physical hardship that experts today surely would consider nearly impossible to overcome. Despite this, his mother brought him to the United States and enrolled him in the third grade. He couldn't speak English.

Now he is world-famous, a pioneer in the science of human genetics and biology. His research, together with that of colleagues Oliver Smithies at the University of North Carolina and Sir Martin Evans at the University of Cardiff in Wales, is bringing hope to millions of people who suffer from diseases.

Capecchi's research helped discover how to alter the genes of mice so they can be used in research for a variety of ailments that affect humans. Already, the work has helped understanding on how to fight some cancers, cystic fibrosis, high blood pressure and heart disease. But the exciting thing is the promise this research holds for the future.

The University of Utah — and all Utahns, for that matter — should feel a sense of pride in Capecchi's work and his connection to the state.

More importantly, however, his life should serve as a source of inspiration. The next time you hear about children living in poverty and malnutrition; the next time you read about a crack baby or a child who has been horribly abused by his or her parents; think of Capecchi and realize there is hope. Just as flowers can sprout through the cracks in a sidewalk, the human spirit can sprout brilliance under the most daunting circumstances.