Eric Lander: The great amplifier pg. 2
Tom Sawyer approach
Lander, who turned 50 in 2007, is perhaps the world’s best known mathematician-turned-geneticist.
The former Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur Fellow established and directed one of the five centers primarily responsible for completing the Human Genome Project.
While hundreds of scientists contributed to this landmark achievement, “he certainly was one of the leaders in… starting to turn out the sequence on a large scale,” says Philip Green, Ph.D., professor of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, who worked with Lander in the late 1980s.
“That took a lot of organizational skill and fairly aggressive approaches,” Green continued, “to really acquire the resources and motivate the people in his group to get going on that.”
“You know Tom Sawyer getting everybody together to paint the fence? That’s Eric,” says Lander’s younger brother Arthur, laughing. “He can get groups of people to do enormous amounts of work and thank him for it.”
The ability to inspire others actually may be Lander’s greatest talent, and his most enduring legacy.
Eight hundred scientists actively contribute to the Broad Institute’s projects, of which the cancer genome is one of a dozen. When they congregate for coffee, they’re more likely to discuss a colleague’s latest paper in Nature Genetics than the sports pages of the Boston Globe.
“This is the truly important work for our generation in science,” enthuses Mark Daly, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School who has worked with Lander since he was a freshman at MIT 20 years ago. “We have an unswerving belief that this is the work that is going to make a difference in medicine in the future.”
Lander’s “big science” approach to cancer has its share of critics, among them Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, D.Phil.
Even though he was an early proponent of what would become the Human Genome Project, Brenner worries that investment in expensive technology is now driving the research agenda, rather than the other way ’round.
During a lecture at Vanderbilt University in 2006, the Oxford-trained geneticist joked that he would like to buy Lander’s gene sequencers “and throw them into the sea. That would be the inverse of the Boston Tea Party.”
Yet for Lander, big science is not about the machines.
“It’s about taking on the responsibility of creating datasets of tools, and then putting them in the hands of thousands of young scientists who make them 50 times more efficient,” he says.
“So it’s always ‘big science’ in the service of the individual investigator. That was what the Human Genome Project was about… And that’s what the projects going on here on inherited genetic variation of disease, on cancer, on evolution, on infectious disease—all of them share that role.