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Francis Collins Biography
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Francis Collins Date of birth: April 14, 1950
Francis Collins grew up on a small farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His father, in addition to raising cows and sheep, taught at a nearby women's college. His mother, a playwright, educated him at home until the sixth grade.
When Collins graduated from high school at age 16, he was determined to become a chemist. At the time, he had no interest in biology, which he considered chaotic and unpredictable. At the University of Virginia, he continued to avoid biology, preferring to concentrate on chemistry and physics. After graduating with honors from the University of Virginia, he began working toward a doctorate in physical chemistry at Yale University. At Yale, he took a course in biochemistry, and first encountered DNA and RNA, the molecules that carry the code of life.
Fascinated by the emerging revolution in genetic science, Collins began to reconsider his career choice, and search for a way to apply his scientific education for the immediate benefit of his fellow human beings. While still completing his doctoral dissertation in physical chemistry, Collins enrolled in medical school at the University of North Carolina, and was introduced to the field of medical genetics. At last he had found the field that would allow him to combine his passion for research with his humanitarian convictions.
After completing his residency in internal medicine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he returned to Yale for a fellowship in human genetics. He later joined the faculty of the University of Michigan and swiftly moved through the academic ranks. At Yale and Michigan, he began to cross large strands of DNA to identify abnormal genes. This approach, which he called "positional cloning," allows the identification of the genes responsible for many disorders.
Together with Lap-Chee Tsui and Jack Riordan of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, his research team identified the gene for cystic fibrosis in 1989. That was followed by his group's identification of the neurofibromatosis gene in 1990, and in 1993, "after the longest and most frustrating search in the annals of molecular biology" Collins and company located the defective gene that causes Huntington's disease.
Francis Collins has received numerous national and international awards for his research, and is a member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. His own laboratory remains active, studying the molecular genetics of diseases including breast cancer, prostate cancer, and adult-onset diabetes.
Dr. Collins accepted an invitation in 1993 to succeed James Watson as director of the National Center for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health. In this role, Collins oversaw a 15-year multibillion-dollar effort to locate and map every gene in human DNA by the year 2005. Many consider this the most important undertaking in the history of science. Collins kept the project ahead of schedule and under budget. In June 2000, the Center had achieved a first rough draft of the human genome. By April 2003, Dr. Collins could announce the completion of the entire human genome sequence. As we learn the precise function of every gene, new discoveries yield incalculable benefits in the fight against birth defects and hereditary disease.
In 2007, Dr. Collins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. The award citation read, in part, "This monumental advance in scientific knowledge has begun to unlock some of the great mysteries of human life and has created the potential to develop treatments and cures for some of the most serious diseases. The United States honors Francis Collins for his efforts to decode human DNA and improve human health." In August 2008, Dr. Collins stepped down, after 15 years as Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research. A little less than a year later, President Barack Obama chose him to serve as Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A part of the Department of Health and Human Services, NIH is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting medical research. As Director of NIH, Francis Collins will be responsible for 27 separate institutes and research centers, providing leadership and financial support to researchers in every state and throughout the world.