Barrier-Busting Curiosity

Q&A with Harvard Genomics Professor George Church

Harvard Medical School Genomics Professor George Church sets aside 4:00am to 8:00am every day, including weekends, during which he has “no distractions and a completely undisciplined approach to knowledge and thinking.”

Describing himself for a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) online discussion, Dr. Church wrote, “My lab develops technologies for sequencing genomes, editing DNA in living cells, and harnessing DNA as a molecular tool.” 

Bringing back the woolly mammoth and reversing the aging process are two of his projects that have caught the attention of the mainstream media. (To further decode Dr. Church and his numerous achievements and honors, visit his website.)

We recently spoke with Dr. Church about the earliest origins of his curiosity and how he uses curiosity today in his work to redraw the frontiers of science. 

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: How did curiosity fit into your choice of career?

Dr. Church: I am among the most curious people I know, in almost every field of science, so curiosity had a huge impact on how I chose my first research project and every one since then. I knew early on that I wanted to do something that involved math, physics, chemistry, and biology – at least. I was looking on a job board as a sophomore at college and found something on x-ray crystallography, and you need all four of those disciplines to do it. Curiosity was the driving force. I never subtract a field, I’m always adding.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: Stepping back further, to even earlier in your life, how did your curiosity manifest itself?

Dr. Church: I am very, very curious about how the world works and how the universe works. Growing up, I lived on the mud flats in Clearwater, Florida. I’d go out into the mud almost on a daily basis to see what had floated up the day before and then I would go look it up. I was mildly dyslexic so I would tend to use the pictures in books. A lot of my curiosity had to do with how things worked in a mechanistic way.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: In your lab now, among your team, how do you encourage curiosity? Do you hire for it?

Dr. Church: Most of the people in my lab come with curiosity, so there’s a lot of self-selection and a lot of me selecting people who seem curious. 

We have to encourage the risk-taking, but still protect people, so that they can fail fast, but there’s a net underneath them, so when they fall off the high wire, they know that there’s a place to land.

In my lab, we created a culture and established a track record and that attracts people from all over. They come to the lab and say, „Here is a culture where they try bold things. This is a place you can dream and no one makes fun of you.“

„Bad ideas“ are not immediately dismissed. They are put up on a (virtual) wall as, here is a potential idea, not a bad idea. You create a culture that’s very supportive of wacky ideas. Some of them we follow just because it helps us do slightly less wacky things, but still more out of the box than anyone else on the planet.

We have a full time on-site artist, Joe Davis, in our lab. He inspires everybody else. Everyone is an artist to everybody else in the lab. It’s like an artist colony.

Bringing back the woolly mammoth isn’t a big project in the lab, but it’s an inspiring project. We get more letters from 10-year-olds about it than about all of our other projects put together.

  Someone holding a DNA sequence   Someone holding a DNA sequence

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: What about blue sky thinking time for yourself and your team? How do you encourage it?

Dr. Church: First I create an environment where failure is definitely an option – very different from the NASA saying „Failure is not an option.“

For me, I set aside from 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. every day where there’s absolutely no distractions whatsoever. I have a completely undisciplined approach to knowledge and thinking during that time.

I’m also narcoleptic, so typically (experiences of) going in and going out of those narcoleptic fits are very creative.

What I do for the environment in my lab is to have a smorgasbord of very creative projects. Nobody is required to participate in them, but it inspires them to say, „Well, I can do something just as creative because I know the graduate student who came up with this project, or, I know George, and I can do better.“

I try to celebrate ideas, but not encourage courting of ideas. But not discounting them, either. So you don’t want to say ideas are a dime a dozen, but you also don’t want to say, „Your idea is so terrific, you can’t share it with anybody.“ You have to get it just right.

We have two lab meetings a week where very creative presentations are made. They tend to slip into regular presentations, but the conversation always goes into creative mode. It’s very cool.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: Part of our curiosity initiative at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is exploring the relationship between curiosity and innovation. Is there a particular idea or product – one that’s gone to market – for which you can draw a link from curiosity to the product?

Dr. Church: An „old curiosity“ that led to a product? Yes. Early on, I was very curious about neurobiology and in 1976 I happened to notice a whole field of neurobiology where you can study single molecules – and I just stored that away in my head.

Years later, I was looking for way to sequence DNA and I realized that you could take this little trick from neurobiology and single molecules and do single-molecule sequencing with nanopores. 

That was in 1988... and then it took a long time. It was one of these things where curiosity stimulated it in a very interdisciplinary jump from neurobiology to genomics and now there are two companies that are producing practical devices. 

The first practical, hand-held, sequencing devices are based on that nanopore concept. We’re now building a hand-held synthesizer, so you can make DNA from your cell phone, or your computer, or your head, and then you can read it in the other hand – with two hand-held devices. They will just keep shrinking to the point where, just like we have ubiquitous computing, we’ll have ubiquitous DNA sequencing.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: In your many years of running a large, prestigious lab, have you observed generational shifts in curiosity among your students and colleagues? 

Dr. Church: I can’t say that I have. A change I have seen over time is people being more and more interested in doing their own start-up or joining a fairly young start-up.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: Being more commercially minded, too?

Dr. Church: I think so. I think it’s a combination of being more of your own boss, getting access to better resources. Probably a top priority is having something that will actually impact the world rather than being more theoretical.

That’s my impression of it from many, many conversations over the years.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: Thank you, Dr. Church, for your insights. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.

How curious are you? Take the self-test, read our State of Curiosity Report, and learn more.

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