The Family Business: An interview with Dr Eric Green
There are a lot of similarities between the Human Genome Project era and today. We have audacious aims, we don’t know how we’re going to get there, but we know that we’ll find a way to do it. Who needs a ‘Master Plan’?
Eric Green has been involved in genomics from the very beginning. He played a significant role in sequencing the human genome, and now directs the US Government’s efforts in genomics as head of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Was he always destined for a career in genomics, or was it really a case of being in the right place at the right time?
FLG: Where did your interest in science come from? When did you know it was what you wanted to devote your life to?
EG: I come from a science family. My father is a virologist. Actually, he just turned 90 years old and is still an active researcher with his own laboratory at St Louis University. He was somebody that I saw from my earliest childhood with remarkable dedication to science and a complete commitment to understanding the biological world. I used to hang out in his laboratory as a child, and then I worked there as a teenager. I also have an older brother who’s a scientist, and even an older sister who is a physician. Being scientifically curious was just part of our upbringing. I did contemplate going to law school, but ultimately decided to ‘stay in the family business’ and pursued an MD-PhD combined degree. To be honest with you, it is just part of our family’s culture to be in the scientific world. I graduated from Washington University Medical School in 1987, which was also the year that the word “genomics” first appeared in the scientific literature. The term “genomics” was coined that year because of all the excitement related to the notion of comprehensively studying the human genome, which eventually led to the Human Genome Project. So, my interest in genomics didn’t come from medical or graduate school because I never heard that word once prior to graduating with my doctoral degrees. I was a PhD student during the intense phase of the molecular biology revolution. Many of my classmates went off cloning and sequencing genes for their thesis projects. That was all the rage in the 1980’s because cloning methods were getting really robust, the early DNA sequencing methods were pretty well-refined, and a lot of very cool molecular biology could be done. I decided not to do any of those things. As a graduate student, I chose to work in a whole different field, studying protein glycosylation, and got my PhD in cell biology. I choose to do a pathology residency for my postgraduate clinical training. My emphasis was on clinical pathology, or laboratory medicine as it is often called, and I developed a significant interest in clinical diagnostics. When it was time for me to start postdoctoral research training as part of my residency, I specifically chose a laboratory that was doing cutting-edge genomic analysis. I knew that there was an exciting new frontier being created by all this buzz about genomics. I decided to work in the laboratory of Maynard Olson, who was a leading figure in conceptualising the Human Genome Project. His lab was also responsible for developing some critical methods for isolating and analysing big pieces of DNA. So, I got really lucky! I was in the right place at the right time to find myself on the front line of the Human Genome Project just a few years after graduating as an MD-PhD student – and the rest is history. I just dedicated my career to it from that point on.
FLG: Between law school and research, those are two intellectually demanding professions. Is problem solving something that attracts you?
EG: Well, part of the reason that I even thought about law school was that many of my friends were pursuing law degrees. That probably influenced me to some extent. But I do think that I approach things in a very organised way, and I pride myself in being able to give clear and organised talks. That, of course, serves you well as a lawyer, so I think I would have applied those skills well in a legal career. What I have done well scientifically is not solving some incredibly complex biological problem or answering some incredibly sophisticated question. Rather, I think my strength has been in organising large-scale production efforts in genomics. The attributes needed for contributing to the Human Genome Project really matched my personality well. It was big, audacious, high throughput, highly managed science. I was excited to work on the Project, running a big mapping and sequencing group and addressing the challenges associated with generating large amounts of data and pursuing audacious goals.
Read the full interview and see what other paths Dr Green might have taken, and what he most wants to be remembered for. Turn to page 14.