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George M. Church

  • Born: August 28, 1954, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0408
Interview Date: March 3, 2008
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
Interviewer: David C. Brock
No. of pages: 42
Minutes: 92

  Abstract of Interview

George M. Church was born on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and lived near Tampa, Florida, until high school.  He attended both public and Catholic schools, but says both systems were poor.  As a result he read a lot, especially science, which he had always liked.  When he was about ten he built an analog computer.  For high school he was sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, which he loved and where he throve.  Dartmouth College, which was nearby, was beginning timeshare computing, and Church used their computer to teach himself more about computers.

When Church entered Duke University he found the computer there less sophisticated than the one he had used while at Andover.  He took many classes, usually upper-level or graduate or independent studies (the last requiring that he have keys to the chemistry lab), and finished in two years.  He took a summer course in quantum physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then began a job in Sung-Hou Kim’s crystallography lab.  There he “finally found the intersection of computers and biology.”  Also during these years he published five papers.

In his self-proclaimed unconventional way, Church entered Harvard University’s PhD program, doing sequencing in Walter Gilbert’s lab, working on polony sequences, and developing some of the earliest sequencers; he introduced multiplexed sequencing.  Next he worked a short while at Biogen Research Corporation before taking a postdoc in Gail Martin’s lab at the University of California, San Francisco.  He left California to be with his future wife, Ting Wu, in Boston, Massachusetts.  She became a full professor with tenure at Harvard and eventually entered Church’s lab.  

Needing a job in Boston, Church talked to a friend, Gary Ruvkun, who offered him an assistant professorship in genetics at Harvard Medical School.  Church also was made a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and given a U.S. Department of Energy grant.  He has advanced through the ranks and is now Director of the Harvard-MIT Genome Technology Center and Director of the Lipper Center for Computational Genetics, as well as a full professor in genetics.  Church’s experience at Biogen had inspired an interest in the connection between academia and commerce, and he patented and began to license his work.  He continues to be fascinated with the interface between synthesis and sequencing, believing that genomics should be functional and comparative.  The Personal Genome Project in his own lab he hopes will help provide affordable personal genomics to many more people.

  Education

1974 B.A., Zoology and Chemistry, Duke University
1984 Ph.D., Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Harvard University

  Professional Experience

Biogen Research Corporation, Cambridge, Massachusetts

1984

Scientist

University of California, San Francisco

1985 - 1986

Research Fellow, Anatomy under Gail R. Martin

Harvard Medical School

1986 - 1998

Assistant/Associate Professor, Genetics

Harvard Medical School

1998 - present

Professor, Genetics

Harvard/MIT DOE Genome Technology Center

1987 - present

Director

The Whitehead Institute & Broad Institute Genome Centers

1990 - present

Senior Associate

Lipper Center for Computational Genetics, Harvard Medical School

1997 - present

Director

Harvard National Human Genome Research Institute Center of Excellence in Genomic Science

2004 - present

Director

The Harvard Wyss Institute

2007 - present

Operating Committee

  Honors

1974 - 1975

National Science Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship

1985 - 1986

Life Sciences Research Foundation Fellow

1986 - 1997

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

2010

Consumer Genetics Champion & Public Initiative Awards

2010

US Presidential & EPA Green Chemistry Award (LS9)

2010

Triennial International Steven Hoogendijk Award

2011

Franklin Institute Bower Prize for Achievement in Science

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Born in MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.  Always liked science.  Pond water creatures.  Schools not good.  Read a lot.  Taught himself science.  Built analog computer at age of about ten.  No interest in religion.  Sent to Phillips Academy Andover for high school.  Loved Andover.  Timesharing computing from Dartmouth College just beginning; Church able to access Dartmouth’s files.

College Years 3

Entered Duke University.  Majored in zoology and chemistry.  Had keys to chemistry lab.  Finished (failed out) in two years.  Summer course in quantum physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Job in Sung-Hou Kim’s crystallography lab.  Intersection of computers and biology perfect for him.  Five papers.

Graduate School and Postdoc Years 8

Walter Gilbert’s lab at Harvard University.  Liked sequencing.  Getting machine to work in crystallography rotation.  Polony sequencing.  Multiplexing.  Short stint at Biogen Research Corporation.  Accepts postdoc at University of California, San Francisco, working in Gail Martin’s lab.  Interested in interface between academia and commerce.  In forefront of genomics.  Leaves early to follow future wife, Ting Wu, to Boston, Massachusetts.

Harvard Medical School Years 22

Assistant professorship in Genetics; Gary Ruvkun’s lab.  Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  U.S. Department of Energy grant.  Wife’s career culminating in tenured full professorship at Harvard Medical School.  Patents and licensing. Sequencing and synthesis.  Functional and comparative genomics.  Systems biology a “fantasy.”  Applying crystallographic insights into automation and computing to different fields of biology.  Founding companies.  Connection between research and clinical medicine may lead to personal genomics.

Index 33

  About the Interviewer

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

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