Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
J. CRAIG VENTER, PhD
I was a horrible student up through high school and a bit of a troublemaker. In seventh grade one of my good friends was a member of Hell’s Angels. He was sixteen or seventeen, but he had flunked and been held back so many times that we were in the same grade. We used to sit in the back of the class and throw spitballs at the teacher instead of paying attention.
I literally came within a half of a degree of flunking out of high school. I luckily got a D- instead of an F in one class (on account of an extra credit paper they had me write) so I graduated. I think they couldn’t bear the idea of seeing me again the next year!
How well people do in school usually depends on their skill set. I’m not great at memorizing, and the education system I was in was definitely geared toward rote memorization and regurgitation. As a result, I just checked out. I’m much more of a processor and intuitive integrator of information, which is very effective in the right environment as I discovered later on.
My family wasn’t in a great economic situation so, in contrast to children today who are either overscheduled or spoon-fed everything, I was just sent out to play. I would collect stray lumber from construction sites and build forts, carts, soapbox racers, and a multitude of different objects. In my teenage years I even built my own powerboat. The creative freedom I had growing up was very formative. I joke that I came out of the education system with my curiosity and imagination intact because I avoided the education system.
I happened to be athletic and was a high school swimming champion. As a result, I was offered a swimming scholarship to the University of Arizona—but I turned it down because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. Swimming is an intense sport, and I knew I wasn’t up for spending six hours a day training and competing for the next four years. I also wasn’t ready for college academically. I wanted to go out and play instead.
After graduating in 1965, I moved to Southern California and took up surfing. To make money, I worked nights at a Sears, Roebuck & Company warehouse putting price tags on toys. I also was a night clerk, an airport fuel-truck driver, and a baggage handler. But the war in Vietnam soon caught up with me and, within several months, I was drafted into the army. My parents, who were both in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, convinced me to enlist in the navy instead.
The first thing they had us do in boot camp was take a battery of tests. Out of 36,000 young men, I scored the highest, much to my amazement. As a result, I was given the choice of going to whatever school I wanted. My main goal was to get an education that would at least enable me to have a trade when I got out, but the schools for electronics and nuclear engineering required extending one’s enlistment for twice the length of the schooling. The last thing I wanted to do was serve longer than needed. The only school that didn’t require an extension was the medical corpsman school. No one explained to me that the reason was because there was a high turnover and low survival rate.
By random assignment, I ended up in the infectious disease ward of a San Diego naval hospital. People would show up inflicted with malaria, tuberculosis, and hepatitis. I found myself in an environment that complemented my learning skills. It was on-the-job training. If I was shown something once, I could do it. With all the woodworking I had done in my youth, I knew I was physically and mechanically skilled, but I didn’t realize that this would translate to drawing blood and doing liver biopsies! It was very rewarding to be good at something. For the first time in my life, I was a sponge and loved learning.
In the military you’re basically allowed to do as much as you are able to do so—within a year, at only nineteen—I was put in charge of the entire infectious disease department and was teaching residents and interns how to do spinal taps and other complex procedures. I was later transferred to a hospital in Long Beach and put in charge of an emergency room. Corpsmen would come into the ER with injuries from drunken brawls, and I would sit there for hours suturing wounds and doing surgeries. I really enjoyed helping people.
After less than two years, the inevitable happened and I was transferred to Vietnam. Nothing prepares you for that kind of situation. Hundreds to thousands of guys my own age were being killed day in and day out. The worst part was that very few of us believed in what we were doing there. It was a depressing situation, and after about five months, it got to be overwhelming. I decided to get away from it all and end my life.
I went to the beach, got in the water, and started swimming out to sea. My plan was to keep going till I was exhausted then sink into the dark waters and oblivion. More than a mile out, I saw a venomous sea snake surface to breathe. I began to have doubts about what I was doing, but I continued on until I encountered a shark. I was instantaneously consumed with fear. All thoughts of dying departed, and I realized that I very much wanted to live. I wanted to live more than I ever had in the previous twenty-one years of my life. I turned around and, driven by sheer adrenaline, swam for the shore in a state of panic.
Once I made it to safety, I never looked back. Something inside me had changed. I wanted my life to mean something. I wanted to make a difference in the world. I wanted to do something to make up for everything I saw in Vietnam and honor those who were already beyond my help.
My original plan after the war was to get an MD degree then practice medicine in the third world. But to do that, I knew I would have to start from scratch given my poor educational history. As I was unable to spell even some of the most basic words, my only choice was to start at a community college—I would have to figure out how to learn in a classroom and study for the first time.
There were many guys in Vietnam who had similar experiences to mine but weren’t able to get over the trauma and adapt to school when they got home. I, fortunately, had loads of motivation on my side. With the same skill set I had in high school combined with my new resolve, I was able to get all A’s, and after two years, I transferred to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
As part of my undergraduate curriculum at UCSD, I encountered some very famous scientists who opened my eyes to a new world. Many people have huge delusions or are very misinformed about science. It’s really just trying to answer questions about life that nobody knows the answer to. It’s trying to figure out how things work so you can fix them. That’s all. The possibilities piqued my curiosity, and I began to work with some of these scientists. I made some early breakthroughs and was both hooked (because it was one of the most gratifying things I’d ever done) and elated (because I had escaped the limitations of my early education). I realized that, as a physician, I could see maybe one hundred patients a day; but as a scientist, if I could come up with a breakthrough, I’d potentially be able to affect everyone on the planet. I had found my true calling and decided to pursue science instead of medicine.
I got both my bachelor’s degree and PhD from UCSD and then went on to work as a professor at SUNY Buffalo and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. In 1984 I was recruited by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the powerhouse of medical research in America. Accepting that offer changed my life and the course of my science. It was at NIH that I became passionate about the power of genomics to radically transform health care, and I joined the government-funded Human Genome Project.
The goal of this program, as the name implies, was to sequence the human genome. What does this mean? Your genome is the complete set of your genetic information. Everything you inherited from your parents, everything they inherited from their parents, and so on (back through the history of humanity) is contained in six billion chemical letters written in DNA code. Sequencing a human genome means reading all six billion letters to figure out what they have to say. It was such a lofty goal that most people thought it would be impossible. But the medical possibilities that this information can lead to are endless. For example, knowing which genes a person has can tell us how likely he is to develop various diseases. And if someone already has a disease, knowing which genes he has can tell us which drugs have the best chance to cure him.
I was part of NIH’s program for about nine years but became frustrated with how slowly things were moving. We had been using a method called “shotgun sequencing” to sequence small pieces of DNA. My team and I believed that this method would be the fastest and most effective way to sequence the whole human genome. We applied for a grant to explore it further, but our request was denied. The government thought that using shotgun sequencing to sequence the whole human genome would be impossible. The lumbering government bureaucracy was locked into its way of doing things and didn’t want to try anything new.
I wanted to go off on my own and have the freedom to do research my way. The problem was that this would require major funding. But in 1992 I found an investor who was willing to put up to $70 million for me to start my own research institute in exchange for sharing my findings with his biotech company (so it could potentially profit from the information). This got things going on the right track, and in 1995 my team and I had a huge breakthrough by using shotgun sequencing to chart the whole genome of a free-living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. Sequencing the human genome, however, was still a lot more complex, and the money required to do so was at a different level altogether.
I eventually found a company that was willing to put up the money required to get things going—$300 million—but unfortunately they wouldn’t allow me to do the experiments at my institute. The catch this time was that I had to partner with them and start a for-profit corporation.
In 1998 we founded Celera Genomics and announced to the world that, using whole-genome shotgun sequencing, we would successfully sequence the human genome years earlier, and for less money, than the government-sponsored Human Genome Project. It was one of the most intense and challenging periods of my life. Celera soon became a public company, and I had to learn how to raise money for it on Wall Street while doing science that nobody thought was possible—all the while being severely attacked by the government-funded program scientists.
You see, what we were doing at Celera was a major threat to the government’s five-billion-dollar public program. The people leading that effort thought they were the only ones in the game and were therefore guaranteed fame and fortune. Next thing they knew, an upstart was threatening to do in one year what they planned on taking well over a decade to complete. They harshly criticized the validity of using shotgun sequencing for the task and attacked me personally. But fortunately, as far as science is concerned, the presence of a competitor lit a fire under the government program and caused them to perform better than they would have otherwise.
The amazing thing is that we were able to sequence the human genome in just nine months. Even though we were way ahead of the government’s effort, I decided to declare a draw and announce our breakthrough with them and the President of the United States. Although on some level it would have been very satisfying to defeat them after all of their attacks, in the end I decided that doing this wasn’t good for me, my team, or anyone. Science is about changing humanity and changing medicine—not about who wins, loses, or gets credit. I thought it was important to get that into perspective and set a good example for generations to come.
Although it will take decades to completely understand everything that the reading of DNA reveals, our breakthrough changed what’s happening across the board in medicine. Every new medical development now uses human gene information as its foundation, and shotgun sequencing is now the method used by its earlier critics.
After our big breakthrough, the people on the business end of Celera became very focused on turning it into a pharmaceutical company. I remained focused on going further with my scientific research. One day I mentioned to a Celera board member that I was thinking of going back to my own institute. Two days later I was fired. They were worried that if word got out that I was going to leave it would hurt the stock. I wanted to leave, but because of the abrupt change—I didn’t even have the opportunity to say good-bye to my team—it was probably one of the toughest times I’ve been through. I went from dealing with the world press every day and having all these people report to me to nothing. In an instant my main identity was pulled away, and I was back to being just me. I was shocked at how utterly lost I felt. It took a few months to adapt. I went sailing around the Caribbean and thought about what I wanted to do. Many people would have been happy to quit at that point. But I still had a lot I wanted to accomplish. So I came back and started a new institute and a company called Synthetic Genomics.
Now I’m working on the creation of synthetic life, which is as important, if not more so, than sequencing the human genome. This breakthrough has many applications for the future. By synthetically making DNA, we can now make a flu vaccine in a few hours instead of the nine months it used to take. We’re also using the technology to make new sources of medicine and energy and to create new food types.
Along with Synthetic Genomics, I also recently started another company, Human Longevity Inc., which is dedicated to using advances in genomics along with stem-cell therapeutics to extend and enhance the healthy human life span. I think my best work is yet to come.
Success in any field is largely about taking risks. While I have always been somewhat of a risk taker, my time in Vietnam really helped put things in perspective. Out there I had to worry about losing my life multiple times a day. Being back in the comfort of America with my life relatively protected, career risks seemed pretty trivial. As a result, I’ve gone out on professional limbs that very few people would. My government job with NIH provided me with guaranteed employment and science funding, but I gave all that up to pursue what most of my peers viewed as a real long shot. My sequencing experiment could have failed, and I would have been left without a source of income, but I believed so strongly that my method would work that I was willing to take the risk.
The biggest obstacle I continually face is the static resistance to new ideas and new approaches. If you look at the history of breakthroughs in science and medicine, almost everything that’s turned out to be a major development was initially attacked by the establishment—mainly because it was a threat. Thomas Kuhn wrote about the stages of paradigm shifts in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: First a new idea is attacked then it’s reluctantly accepted. Along with the acceptance comes denial that it was ever an issue to begin with and a bit of historical revision that it was never that big of a breakthrough. A great example of this can be seen through the story of Barry Marshall, the Australian physician who discovered that bacteria causes stomach ulcers. At the time of Marshall’s breakthrough, the whole medical establishment believed that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid. In addition, the whole pharmaceutical industry was based on this premise (antacids were sold to treat stomach ulcers). The last thing they wanted the cause of ulcers to be was bacteria—so Marshall and his theory were severely attacked over and over again. Finally in 1984, he drank a whole petri dish of bacteria to prove his point. He developed severe ulcers, and it was slowly accepted that bacteria was the cause of not only stomach ulcers but also of stomach cancer. Marshall finally received the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his discovery, but it was only through that kind of perseverance that he was able to prove his point and overcome the opposition.
This phenomenon, unfortunately, is not unique to science. Life is about competition. Certain people intensely dislike others because they’re either successful or do things differently. Politicians get this all the time for picking one party over another. It’s discouraging that people work at this basic level, but that’s part of humanity. You really need to believe in yourself and not let others’ opinions define you.
Being able to change directions when needed is essential in life, especially in science. Sometimes you go down a dead-end path, but that’s part of the process. The sooner you realize it the better so you can get on the right track. Most scientists work in a linear fashion. They’ll spend years doing something, and then do the final experiment, which won’t work because their theory was flawed from the beginning.
I like to start with quick and dirty experiments to gauge if we are on the right track. If we are, I get intensely focused and put 110 percent into proving it and making it work in an elegant fashion. When we’re not, we reassess and change directions. My team will tell you that I reserve the right to change my mind and that I’m constantly rethinking things. It’s like sailing. The way you go upwind is to tack back and forth from one side to another and slowly work your way up. You can’t go straight into the wind.
Ideally, I wish I had started my formal education earlier—it would have given me more time to accomplish the things I want to in life. However, my real-world education was necessary to shape me into the person I am. I hope that others won’t need to experience anything close to the intensity of war to find themselves, but I see more and more kids taking off for a year or so after they finish college and doing something different. I think that’s smart if you don’t know what you want to do and can afford the time. So many people get pushed along in the “system,” and because they don’t really know what they want to do, they practically let their careers be chosen for them. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s hard to be successful at it. You can show up and do what’s required, and you can even do your job well, but that’s not where real success is going to come from. Success comes from doing something extraordinary with passion and intensity.
A key element to my success has been my ability to attract the best people in the world to work with me—and then keep them motivated. A lot of scientists isolate themselves in their laboratories. To me, science is about team building. I work with large multidisciplinary teams composed of physicists, mathematicians, biochemists, biologists, and computer scientists. We all intermingle in a shared workspace and contribute our own personal expertise to solve a problem. I’ve found that most people like being part of something larger than themselves and accomplishing an ambitious goal.