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Frontiers of Medicine
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Frontiers of Medicine
Francis Collins Interview (page: 6 / 6)
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Was there someone in your career who was instrumental in giving you the start that you needed? Who saw you and believed in you?
Francis Collins: As a senior in college I had a mentor who had just arrived from Yale as an assistant professor. He oversaw my senior research project, and spent countless hours helping me understand issues that related to theoretical calculations in quantum mechanics, something I was very interested in. He made me believe in myself, that I had the ability not just to copy somebody else's ideas, but to come up with one of my own occasionally. That was very important.
After I went to medical school and got into molecular biology, made this transition into research and genetics, I was fortunate to work in the laboratory of the most brilliant man I've ever met. He has 10 new ideas an hour. He's also somebody who doesn't communicate very well. He's on another plane. In the first month I was there I don't think I understood a word he said. He was speaking English, but it made no sense to me. I was really lucky to have a chance to watch his mind work and to see how he could take really disparate observations and come up with an idea.
That was inspiring, opening up your mind, getting rid of the limitations of the direct approach. When somebody said, "That's not an experiment that you can do," questioning it. "Why not? Just because nobody ever did it before?" He really taught me that.
When you become a grandfather, and sit down to read something to your grandchildren, what do you think it might be?
Francis Collins: Probably Winnie The Pooh or The Wizard of Oz, hearkening back to my own youth, and wanting to recreate that for a grandchild.
Are there books that have been important to you as an adult?
Francis Collins: There are several.
Because I had no real grounding for that, I discovered in college that I couldn't debate those who said, faith was just a superstitious carry-over from the past and we've gone beyond that. I assumed that must be right, and I promoted that same view. And at 27, particularly as a medical intern, watching so many tumultuous things happening around me -- young people dying for terrible reasons that shouldn't have come to pass -- you can't avoid noticing some pretty scary questions that don't seem to have answers. So I decide I'd better resolve this.
Somebody pointed me towards C.S. Lewis's little book called Mere Christianity, which took all of my arguments that I thought were so airtight about the fact that faith is just irrational, and proved them totally full of holes. And in fact, turned them around the other way, and convinced me that the choice to believe is actually the most rational conclusion when you look at the evidence around you. That was a shocking sort of revelation, and one that I fought bitterly for about a year and then finally decided to accept. And that's a book I go back to regularly, to dig through there for the truths that you find there, which are not truths that Lewis would claim he discovered for the first time, but he certainly expresses them in a very powerful way to somebody who is not willing to accept faith on an emotional basis, and I wasn't.
[ Key to Success ] Vision
What do you know now about achievement that you didn't know when you were younger?
Francis Collins: Achieving requires you to find that place where you get electrified by what you're involved in. I am sure there are people who achieve considerable things in areas that they never really loved, but they were sort of asked to do. We in America are very fortunate, because we have those choices. Not everybody does, yet people achieve anyway.
To make the most of your resources, it helps to be really captivated by what you're involved in. When I was growing up I did not know what that would be like. There were a lot of things I enjoyed doing, but I wasn't sure I would find something that really made me feel at home, the way I do now. I think that's fairly typical.
There's a great fear you can have when you're growing up that this will never happen to you, that you'll go through your whole life feeling lost, that you haven't been able to discover your niche, or maybe there just isn't one for you. Yet eventually it happens. That's a critical part of the achievement equation.
To be determined, if necessary, to stay up until one o'clock in the morning doing an experiment over and over again, until you get some kind of meaningful result. As a kid, I hadn't experienced the dedication and the hard work that's part of getting somewhere in something you care about.
As a kid you're kind of focused on yourself. What I also have learned is that any real achievement comes from working with other people, or standing on their shoulders. I've had that experience. In everything I've done that turned out well, I had lots of partners who were both my colleagues and my friends. The experience of doing this together made it much more meaningful than it ever would have been in some isolated way. There may be a few people who achieve great things all by themselves, but not too many. I wouldn't even want to be one of them, I like doing this in a fashion where I have lots of other folks to share with.
What do you think are the most important documents of this century?
Francis Collins: Since I'm a scientist, I will tell you that the most important document in my field of this century is a one page paper published on April 25th, 1953 in the journal Nature, authored by James Watson and Francis Crick, describing the structure of DNA and the double helix that makes up this thread of life. Everything changed when that was laid out, because the elegance of that structure immediately explained a whole long list of the critical features of how life exists.
I think that will stand the test of time as the most important document of the century in science. I'd like to believe the most important document of the early part of the next century will be an electronic one, which is the reference sequence of the human genome, our instruction book, our blueprint. It's a pretty big document. If you print it all out and make a hard copy of it, you'd better have a lot of storage space. When you consider the significance of that, it would be difficult to match.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Francis Collins: It means the opportunity to follow the area that inspires you. The opportunity to learn about something, regardless of your family background, or your degree of resources, to be able to pursue interesting areas that just appeal to you. Not to be obstructed in that path by unfair rules that say, "That's not an appropriate thing for you to do."
To a significant extent, that dream is true, but we could do better. It's easy for me to say it's true; I came from a family that valued learning. I was exposed to wonderful opportunities almost from the day I was born. I've never had a serious illness to get in the way of what I wanted to do. I had a family that was stable. My parents are about to celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary. Those are wonderful blessings and not everybody has that kind of experience. That's the dream, I think, to keep those opportunities available.
What do your parents think of what you have become?
Francis Collins: My parents are wonderfully open-minded, excited people about every area of life's mysteries. They have a son who turned out to be interested in science and medicine, which is different from their other three sons. They think it's terrific. They've always been 100 percent supportive of that. They read everything they can get their hands on about genetics. Whenever I call them or come to visit, they want to have a conversation about it. "What was this latest report about that breast cancer gene? What's happening today with gene therapy for cystic fibrosis?" They're big fans. I think that reflects the enormous breadth of their interest as human beings, which is something they taught me early on. So many people are satisfied with a narrow view of the world, because it's a little more comfortable that way. They taught me that you miss out on a lot that way.
This has been an extraordinary conversation. Thank you very much.
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This page last revised on Sep 19, 2010 13:25 EST
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