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.