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If you like Francis Collins's story, you might also like:
Keith Black,
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Norman Borlaug,
Linda Buck,
Paul Farmer,
Judah Folkman,
Susan Hockfield,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Linus Pauling,
George Rathmann,
Jonas Salk,
John Sulston,
James Thomson,
Charles Townes,
Bert Vogelstein,
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Shinya Yamanaka

Francis Collins's recommended reading: Mere Christianity

Francis Collins can be seen and heard in our Podcast Center, in discussions of:
Science and Faith
Public Health Policy

Francis Collins also appears in the videos:
The Health of America
Challenges for the 21st Century
Frontiers of Medicine

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Francis Collins in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

Related Links:
NIH
NHGRI
PBS

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Francis Collins
 
Francis Collins
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Francis Collins Interview

Presidential Medal of Freedom

May 23, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Francis Collins

Dr. Collins, you had a major change of direction early in your career. You started out as a chemist. You had started a family and were getting a Ph.D. when you changed courses and went to medical school. What was that like?


I was kind of in a crisis. Here I was, already had a kid who was a couple of years old, and I was facing the idea of starting over again, and what to do. And I was pretty shaken up about whether research was the right thing for me or not. So I considered many options, and stayed up many nights wondering which was right. And finally decided, even though it had not been a childhood dream at all, that medicine was a really interesting option for me. That it would allow me to learn about the life sciences and see if there was something there that really grabbed my fancy in the way of research. But if that didn't happen, I knew I loved working with people. I knew I had this urge to try to do something for other human beings, an urge that I hadn't been able to experience quite in the way I wanted to in the physical sciences. And if I just ended up being a doc out in the hills somewhere, that would be okay too.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


You can see how fragmentary this logic was. Yet somehow things worked out. I went to medical school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, a wonderful place to find yourself.


In that first few months as a medical student I remember a day just as clear as if it was yesterday, where a pediatrician came to talk to us, and he brought with him a couple of patients who had genetic diseases. And it was so powerful to see the consequences of a small change in this wonderful molecule called DNA. Just one letter out of place causing a disease like sickle cell anemia, which was one of the individuals that he brought, or galacticemia, a newborn baby that he brought to class. And that, maybe because it also appealed to the mathematical part of me that liked the precision of DNA and its coding capacity -- it's a digital molecule after all -- made it so clear at that moment, that day, that's what I want to do.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


It took a long time, so I'm sympathetic with young people who find themselves surrounded by others who seem to have zeroed in exactly on what they want to do, and yet they're not so sure themselves whether they've found their dream. I encourage people to take their time. I found my dream a little early I think. It was a good dream, but there was a better dream for me that I had to develop, with some changes in the plan. I think that change has served me very well.


I now think I'm the luckiest guy in science. I have a chance to stand at the helm of a project that I honestly believe is the most significant undertaking that we have mounted so far in an organized way in all of science. I believe that reading our blueprints, cataloguing our own instruction book, will be judged by history as more significant than even splitting the atom or going to the moon. This is an adventure into ourselves. To figure out, what are the instructions that allow us as human beings to carry out all of our biological attributes? I think all of history, and the history of biology and medicine, will be divided by this stunning achievement. Of what we knew before we knew the human genome sequence, and what we were able to do after that. And for me, this kid from the small farm in Virginia, to have a chance to oversee that is just an astounding thing.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


I could never have planned this, never have dreamed it. It just gradually came about.

You said a small farm in Virginia. Really? What was your childhood like?


Francis Collins: I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, on a small farm with no plumbing. It was a fairly arduous existence during the winter, because we had stock that had to be taken care of. It all sounds very pastoral. It was hard work, but it was also educationally challenging in a good way, because my father was a Ph.D. in English, and my mother a very talented playwright. My mother decided that the county schools were not a place where a young person would learn to love learning. And so she kept my brother and me at home and taught us there until the sixth grade. And that was I think probably a very important part of my life's experience, because I really did learn how to love acquiring new information.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


She was very good at figuring out when a topic had caught my fancy and let me run with it. When it reached a point where it wasn't so much fun anymore, we'd quickly shift to something else. Whether it was mathematics, or studying languages, or understanding the roots of various words, which was a big thing for her. There were no lesson plans, there was no sort of organized curriculum, but somehow it sort of worked out. I was really fortunate to have that experience.

My parents were also very involved in the arts. My father ran the drama department in a small college, and when I was three years old they founded a summer theater in the grove of trees above the farmhouse. It's now in its 45th consecutive season. So summertimes were great fun, with all of these interesting people and different productions going on. My father had been a folk song collector in the '30s in North Carolina, so he knew amazing people who were real musicians, in the old style. So there was always music around.

Nobody in this environment had any particular involvement in science or medicine, that was not part of my upbringing, yet that's what I've ended up doing. I started going to regular school in the 6th grade, when we moved in town to be with my grandmother, who'd had a stroke. My mother decided those schools were okay and it was safe to send her boys there.

Do you have brothers and sisters?

Francis Collins: I have three brothers, I'm the youngest.

What was that like, being on the bottom in that pecking order?

Francis Collins: My two oldest brothers were much older, they were almost in college by the time I was born. They seemed more like uncles. The brother closest to me was only two years older and I think it was much harder on him than it was on me to be growing up together. My mother taught both of us at the same time. It was a lot easier to do that than to have two different curricula for these two boys who were so close in age. As a result, he was always being threatened by this younger brat brother of his, who wanted to be just as advanced as he was in whatever we studied. I think that took a toll on him. It was great for me, I had a ball.

Do you think it affected you, being the youngest of that group?

Francis Collins: I think it was a good position for me to be in. I'm not sure I thought so at the time. I knew my brother could beat me up if we got into a real tussle, 'cause he was a little bigger. But once in a while I would score a few points. Other than that, I think it was really helpful to have a brother who's a little bit older. I could watch the things that he had figured out and learn how to do them myself. All kids will copy somebody who's a little older, and he was right there to copy.

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