Retroviruses, engineering and the future of science pg. 4
Varmus: I have concerns about the way in which we’re training people. One of those concerns is the need to learn computation at the same time that one learns biology. This is something that can only be rectified by new curricula for undergraduates, by generating centers in which people who are trained in computation or statistics or computer science are side by side with biologists training students to know both languages.
What attracted you to a career in science?
Baltimore: First of all, I found it easy, and so I followed my nose. My mother (Gertrude Baltimore) was a scientist, and nudged me at critical times in my life into directions that were very powerful and very effective.
She studied experimental psychology with the Gestalt psychologists at the New School for Social Research. She taught at the New School for many years, and then went to Sarah Lawrence College where she taught for the rest of her career. She was a great teacher, and anybody I’ve every run into who was touched by her at Sarah Lawrence told me how special she was.
Varmus: I spent most of my college career running away from science. I did the premed requirements, but one of the things that was most important to me when I was at college was my work as an English major studying Charles Dickens … Then I went to graduate school in literature for a while before going back into medicine.
I was not particularly interested in putting on a uniform and going to Vietnam ... Because I was a reasonable student at medical school, it wasn’t all that difficult for me to get into a government program that would allow me to do research, in this case at the NIH.
I ended up, despite an almost complete lack of research experience, in the laboratory of Ira Pastan. He was a terrific mentor, and got me excited about molecular biology. The serendipity factor for most people has a lot to do with who you run into and how they influence you.
Why did you get involved in administration?
Varmus: I never saw the NIH as an administrative job. What I found interesting were the policy issues. What is the direction medical research should be taking? How do we show the public the best side of science? How do we advertise our science? I saw this as a chance to do public service.
Baltimore: I discovered long ago about myself that I am interested in the institutions that make science happen. A very important part of the scientific enterprise is the maintenance of strong institutions, because all science takes place in institutions. That’s where all the money goes.
I never thought that I would do anything about this interest until I was offered the opportunity to start the Whitehead Institute (in 1982). I found it extremely rewarding to do that. But at the same time, I haven’t wanted to leave behind my science, and so I managed … to continue to run a large laboratory.
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