Missing Out By Taking Christmas Off

On Christmas Day 25 years ago, Carol Greider made the discovery that won her a share of this year's Nobel Prize in medicine. But her friend and colleague wasn't there at the eureka moment, and missing it taught him an important life lesson about working on Christmas.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Most people in this country don't work on Christmas Day. Some of us do, but we don't mind; it can be fun. And missing work on Christmas Day could mean missing something, like a moment that makes history.

Twenty-five years ago today, that's just what happened to a friend of NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA: In 1984, Roland Kanaar was a young scientist just starting graduate school in Holland.

Dr. ROLAND KANAAR (Erasmus University, Holland): And in two weeks in, I was sent to the University of California, Berkeley.

PALCA: There was technique scientists at Berkeley had developed that Roland needed to learn for his graduate research. When he got to Berkeley, he went to work in a lab in Stanley Hall. The graduate students in Stanley Hall were a tight-knit group; everybody knew what everybody else was doing. Roland was anxious to make the best use of his time because...

Dr. KANAAR: In the Netherlands, you have four years. Four years to finish your Ph.D., and that's it. So for that reason, I worked very hard.

PALCA: Like everyone else in Stanley Hall, Roland was extremely interested in what one of his grad school colleagues was working on. Carol Greider was hot on the trail of an enzyme that was crucial for cells to keep dividing. Finding it would be a major breakthrough.

So there was Roland slaving away in the lab...

Dr. KANAAR: For the four months I was there, I worked every day.

PALCA: And every day or almost every day, he would check on Greider's work.

Dr. KANAAR: Except I didn't work one day. Of those four months, I skipped Christmas Day in 1984.

PALCA: And it was Christmas Day, 1984 - 25 years ago - that Greider had the eureka moment, the first proof that she had found her enzyme. It was a moment so important that it won Greider a share of this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine. And Roland missed it.

He wasn't the only one. Greider was alone in the lab that day. Now Roland's a big-time professor at the University of Erasmus at Rotterdam.

Dr. KANAAR: I tell my students, you know, never, ever miss a day in the lab because you never know what's going to happen.

PALCA: The same goes for reporters: You never want to miss a day because you never know what important news might erupt. Of course, do as I say, not as I day. I recorded this piece yesterday. I'm off today.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

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