2012 Panel Discussion - Questions and Answers

Career Advice

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What advice do you have for young people pursuing genetic sciences, and what advancements do you think the next generation can achieve?

I like Keith Yamamoto’s “inflection point” metaphor.  The convergence of several strands of biological research has created enormous opportunities to confront biological complexity.  We can now gather a vast amount and variety of relevant data about any biological process.  We have astonishingly powerful model systems in which to develop and test our ideas.  I think we have rather good paradigms for many of the molecular processes that underlie biological function.  Existing knowledge and technology is already having a conspicuous impact on medicine and agriculture, thereby insuring continuing interest in what biologists do.  In short reductionist methods have been remarkably successful in taking Humpty Dumpty apart.  Now we need to figure out how to put him back together again.  The gulf between molecular pathways and organismal function remains vast.  I have no advice for young scientists aspiring to meet this grand challenge.  The big break-throughs will be made by young scientists who ignore the advice of village elders.

Imagine you were able to start over and begin your career as a scientist today.  What would you work on?

I would work on the problem of relating human genotypes to phenotypes.  We have only chipped away at this problem so far.  There is something in this research area to appeal to anyone’s interests.  We need better population-genetic theory, vastly more data, immensely stronger integration of basic research and medicine, new evolutionary insights, more effective ways of using model organisms as surrogates for humans, new approaches to phenotyping (particularly in the case of human behavior), and an improved awareness of both the power and limitations of science.  That list of challenges should keep any young scientist productively occupied.

How do we reduce the period of unemployment, training, or whatever so PhDs get their first job before age 38 and their first NIH grant before age 42?

I tried to set an example by retiring in my mid-sixties and giving up my grants and lab space.  If all the members of my generation of scientists keep running large research programs as long as they are mentally and physically capable of doing so, the problem will just get worse.

Should genome scientists receive training in morality or ethics?

I have already commented on the desirability of broadening scientific training, particular at the interface between science and the humanities.  Morality and ethics should be a part of that process.  I think these subjects lose their vitality, however, when they are abstracted away from history, literature, philosophy, and cultural studies.  They need to be embedded in the full messiness and deep ambiguities of human experience, topics best addressed by the methods of the humanities.  We cannot aspire to turn our graduate students into Renaissance generalists; nevertheless, we should do better exposing them to broad intellectual themes, particularly as they rub up against scientific practice.