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Francis Collins Interview (page: 2 / 6)
Presidential Medal of Freedom
What books were important to you when you were growing up?
Francis Collins: I read everything that Frank Baum wrote, The Wizard of Oz and all the rest. I was very much into the Dr. Doolittle series, and a whole series of books about exploration, that I read all the time. My mother took me to the library, that was a real important outing. We would pick a book and that was a big part of my life. On the farm in the wintertime, when you weren't working outdoors, there wasn't a lot to do, so reading was a big part of my childhood.
There was no television, we didn't have one. My parents thought it was an evil force, and I think they're probably right. Without that kind of distraction, and books were my friends. I wouldn't say I dug into the classics. I preferred Winnie The Pooh to reading Homer, but Dickens was important to me. Every evening my father would read after dinner. We'd sit around and he'd read a chapter from whatever book we were going through. We went through a lot of Dickens that way.
I really learned to love the language and my father's voice reading it. And the cohesiveness of this family sitting around the fire, a special time that nothing was allowed to interfere with. That was a very clever idea on my parents' part to teach this love of reading, and of language, and of togetherness, and how that can all work together.
How do you think it affected you, learning at home, instead of going to school with the other kids?
Francis Collins: I think it affected me in a positive way, getting excited about learning. I had the best teacher/pupil ratio you can imagine. It probably affected me in a negative way socially, because I had no other kids to interact with, except my brother who was two years older than me. There were no other kids my age for two miles. I had to catch up, which was a little difficult when I was suddenly thrust into the social scene of the sixth grade. But one copes and compensates, and I don't think I sustained any lasting damage.
Didn't you resent it at the time that you couldn't go to school with the other kids?
Francis Collins: I did feel like I was missing out on things like sports, social activities and birthday parties. During the year, when everybody else was in school and seemed to be having a good time, I was not always so happy. There was a lot of hard work on the farm, not a lot of chance to get out and fool around. But during the summer, when the theater was happening, I thought I was the luckiest kid on earth, with this swirl of activity going on.
When I got to public school I wasn't at all clear what my interest was. I wanted to be a truck driver, I knew that much. That was the major goal in my life for several years.
What made you want to become a scientist? What persuaded you that this is what you wanted to do?
Francis Collins: When I got to high school I had an experience like that of almost everybody I've talked to who's become interested in science or mathematics. I had a teacher who took a real interest in my interest, who taught me chemistry in a way that emphasized the power of the human mind to get answers to questions, as opposed to memorizing things. I really liked that. With the scientific method you could discover things that weren't known before. I liked mathematics, and chemistry, and physics. Those suited me quite well, because they were organized and had principles. You didn't have to memorize stuff. I didn't like memorizing stuff and I wasn't very good at it.
It was the 10th grade in high school, it was the first day of the chemistry course. Mr. House, this wonderful man who'd dedicated his life to getting high school students excited about science, came in and said, "We're going to do an experiment today. I'm going to give you this box, which is painted black, and it has an object inside it and I want you figure out all the ways that you might investigate this to figure out what the object is." And my initial reaction was, "What a dumb idea!" And then I started to try to come up with a list of the kinds of experiments one could do to determine what's inside this black box. And I got caught up in it. It was the first time I think that somebody had challenged me to come up with the ideas. I had some exposure to science in previous courses, but it was, "Here's the facts, learn them." This was, "Okay, I'm challenging you. Here's a problem, how would you solve it?" And I knew something was different here.
[ Key to Success ] Passion
He built on that. I just happen to remember that first experiment, there were many others after that. Here was a teacher who really knew how to excite your interest in the exploration of the unknown. That grabbed me and it never let me go. I also took biology in high school and I didn't like it at all. It was focused on memorization. Learning the parts of the crayfish was a typical assignment. I didn't think that was very interesting. I might have made a bit of a mistake. I didn't appreciate that biology also had principles and logic. I concluded at the age of 15 or 16 that I had no interest in biology, or medicine, or any of those aspects of science that dealt with this messy thing called life. It just wasn't organized, and I wanted to stick with the nice pristine sciences of chemistry and physics, where everything made sense.
I wish I had learned a little sooner that biology could be fun as well. Unfortunately, it was not taught that way to me in high school.
You weren't exactly one-dimensional as a kid. You had other interests, didn't you?
Francis Collins: I was lucky to grow up in a home that had so much music and theater. When I was four years old I took The Wizard of Oz, my favorite book and turned it into a play, which was then produced by the Children's Theater. I got to play the Cowardly Lion, that was the best part. I was very interested in music, so I played the piano, I played the guitar. I sang in the choir at the local church. I didn't learn any theology, but I learned a lot of music. There were many things I was exposed to that I enjoyed, but none of them grabbed me the way science did, once I discovered it, to throw myself into with this kind of intensity.
I went off to college at 16, which was a positive and a negative. I loved being in college, but I was making decisions about my future when I wasn't all that mature. I stuck with this idea that I wasn't interested in life science. I was only interested in physical science, and that's all I did in college. I took every course in chemistry and physics and math that I could, and not a thing in biology.
When I graduated, I did the natural thing, and went off to get a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. For the first year and a half I loved that, it was exciting and stimulating, but I had this uneasy feeling that I'd been a little narrow in my choices of what to pursue. I ended up taking a course in biochemistry, and talking to some of the other graduate students who were working in this thing that was breaking wide open, called recombinant DNA. I was totally captivated, in a way that I'd never been before.
That was exhilarating, because it was so exciting, but it was also terribly distressing, because I'd I was already a second year graduate student when I discovered I was going the wrong way. I was going to have to change and move in another direction. I think lots of people have that experience. The good news was, that's probably a really good thing to go through in the long run. The question was, what should I do at that point? Should I stop what I was doing?
Why do you think that was a good thing to go through?
Francis Collins: When I look back on it now, I can see that all the things I learned in college and in graduate school in physical chemistry are enormously helpful to me as I approach this job now (1998) of being Director of the Human Genome Project. That taught me scientific rigor. People who go into biology and medicine I think really are well served to dig deeply into the physical sciences, before they get totally focused on life science. The principles are so important. The insistence on a rigorous analysis of a situation, where you don't settle for sloppy data if you don't have to, is a really useful training, and I cherish that. Even what I did as a graduate student, which was quantum mechanics, is not something I think about anymore. The intellectual process of developing those skills I think was useful in preparing for something else.
[ Key to Success ] Preparation
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This page last revised on Sep 19, 2010 13:25 EDT
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