Tips from a Biotech Pioneer: Leroy Hood Reflects on His Career, and Offers Some Advice

10/6/08

I leave students (and even some of my colleagues) with several pieces of advice. First, I stress the importance of a good cross-disciplinary education. Ideally, I suggest a double major with the two fields being orthogonal-say, biology with computer science or applied physics. Some argue that there is insufficient time to learn two fields deeply at the undergraduate level.

I argue that this is not true. If we realize that many undergraduate courses now taught are filled with details that are immediately forgotten after the course is finished, we must then learn to teach in an efficiently conceptual manner. As I noted above, as an undergraduate at Caltech I had Feynman for physics and Pauling for chemistry, and both provided striking examples of the power of conceptual teaching.

Second, I argue that students should grow accustomed to working together in teams: In the future, there will be many hard problems (like P4 medicine) that will require the focused integration of many different types of expertise.

Third, I suggest that students acquire an excellent background in mathematics and statistics and develop the ability to use various computational tools. Fourth, I argue that a scholar, academic, scientist, or engineer should have four major professional objectives: (a) scholarship, (b) education (teaching), (c) transferring knowledge to society, and (d ) playing a leadership role in the local community to help it become the place in which one would like one’s children and grandchildren to live.

Fifth, with regard to the scientific careers of many scientists-they can be described as bellshaped curves of success-they rise gradually to a career maximum and then slowly fall back toward the base line. To circumvent this fate, I propose a simple solution: a major change in career focus every 10 or so years. By learning a new field and overcoming the attendant insecurities that come from learning new areas, one can reset the career clock. Moreover, with a different point of view and prior experience, one can make fundamental new contributions to the new field by thinking outside the box. Then the new career curve can be a joined series of the upsides of the bellshaped curve, each reinvigorated by the ten-year changes.

Finally, science is all about being surrounded by wonderful colleagues and having fun with them, so I recommend choosing one’s science, environment, and colleagues carefully. I end this discussion with what I stressed at the beginning-I am so fortunate to have been surrounded by outstanding colleagues who loved science and engineering. Science for each of us is a journey with no fixed end goal. Rather, our goals are continually being redefined.

(Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an essay that appeared earlier this year in the Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry.)

Leroy Hood, MD, PhD, is a co-founder and president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, WA. Dr. Hood and colleagues invented the automated gene sequencer and several other instruments that made the Human Genome Project possible and is globally recognized as the visionary pathfinder for the conceptualization and implementation of systems biology. Follow @

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  • http://daley.med.harvard.edu/assets/Willy/willy.htm Willy Lensch

    Agreed, period. Well said! I want to read the remainder of the article (and will). So, what’s my beef?

    My own experience-based cynicism: I don’t think that most thesis advisors or department chairs are going to recommend this for their trainees and junior faculty. I’ll focus on one part, that above about, “… (a) scholarship, (b) education (teaching), (c) transferring knowledge to society, and (d ) playing a leadership role in the local community…”. These are WONDERFUL points of action. It’s how science SHOULD work. However, in trying to do these things, a scientist (especially a young one) will be “called on the carpet”, warned to focus, and to “stop wasting their time”. I’ve heard it over and over during training and I know that my advisors were always tired of “having that talk again”. I don’t think that my own experience is out of the ordinary, at least among like-minded scientists. If you want to do these things in addition to research, you’d better be prepared to bear some heat and frustration.

    The “standard” that I’ve encountered has always been that scientists should concentrate on research and that other people should do the rest. I disagree with this notion, but there it is. For example, I think that science policy decisions should include input from… well… scientists. If you comment on policy, then you’re told “You should leave science for a career in politics”. If you comment on scientific conduct, then you are told “You should be an ethicist.” Say you want to teach (or even enjoy it – gasp), then you’re told that your best course is to leave the lab and join the faculty at a teaching college. Individual research progress is the bottom line in scientific training (maybe the ONLY line). My question and as Hood suggests, is why not do these important non-lab but scientifically relevant things – as a working scientist? As a person at the bench, doing research, yet simultaneously engaged in other (important) areas?

    The biggest answer is easy: the clock only ticks so many times each day. Time spent doing “other stuff” is time away from research. While you are down in D.C. knocking on doors about the NIH budget, somebody else is back at home working at your bench. Dig? Also, lectures for the general public do good things for real people, but they don’t carry much weight in the old CV. Each scientist is competing with their colleagues for shrinking funding and rare positions. They are not going to be held to the standard they’ve set for their own life (no matter how well meaning), but against the one that others have set for theirs. That’s where the rubber meets the road. As such, how can we be expected (or even encouraged) as young investigators, to embrace the notion of the “citizen scientist”? I would that there was a way and while I suspect that there is, it’s not going to be easy to pull off. It’s going to take a profound change in the way that things are done during training and what we are prepared to accept as the measure of scientific success. Maybe the answer is that only a few will ever be able to make it work. More would be better.

    Feynman AND Pauling? I’ll bet that was SWEET!