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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,
Elizabeth Holmes,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Robert Lefkowitz,
Linus Pauling,
George Rathmann,
Oliver Sacks,
Jonas Salk,
John Sulston,
James Thomson,
Charles Townes,
Bert Vogelstein,
James Watson,
Ian Wilmut,
Edward O. Wilson and
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

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Francis Collins
Francis Collins
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Francis Collins Interview (page: 4 / 6)

Presidential Medal of Freedom

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  Francis Collins

Can you foresee the possibility of a conflict between your own values and the results of your work?

Francis Collins: I wonder about the future use of genetic information, particularly when we talk about enhancing traits. I feel passionately that if we learn how to use genetics to cure terrible diseases, that's a wonderful thing. But if we move away from that and talk about changing human characteristic to improve ourselves, that makes me very uneasy. Who is to decide what is an improvement?

How far are we as a society willing to go with the use of genetics to change ourselves? I'm fairly conservative on this point. I may find myself in disagreement with my own colleagues, or even with the midrange views of society.

I think another obligation I have is not to imagine that my opinion on those matters is particularly weighty. I can weigh in when it comes to the scientific facts. When it comes to the uses to which genetics should be put, I don't think scientists like myself have any unique abilities to decide what's moral and ethical. We need everybody's input on that. And in that regard, I think I have to be careful not to use my own circumstance as the scientific leader of this project to imagine that I'm also in some special ethical position where my opinion must be the right one. That I think is something to constantly keep in front of me.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Any way you look at it, you have an enormous responsibility. How do you deal with that?

Francis Collins: I surround myself with brilliant people who are wise and whose advice I can lean on at every possible moment. The Genome Project is a wonderful team effort. It's not my project, this is a project that involves close to 1,000 scientists at institutions all over the world. The United States is taking a larger role than any other country, but many other countries are participating.

In the U.S. we have a large number of genome centers. We have experts in almost every area. I have advisors who are willing to give up their time and energy to making sure we get there responsibly. It is a heavy load of responsibility, but I can share that load with people who are every bit as committed to the future of this endeavor as I am. If I had to do this by myself it would be very difficult to sleep at night.

What is the fallout on your personal life, on the way you live and your family?

Francis Collins: I am unapologetic about the fact that I'm very intense about the things that I care about. I've been that way since I was three years old, I'm told. That's the way I'm wired. At the same time, relationships matter a lot to me. I have two fabulous daughters, both adults. One is a physician, one's a social worker. I think I have the best father/daughter relationships with them of anybody I know. They are just terrific kids.

I was married for 23 years. That marriage came to an end, sadly, for a whole host of reasons. I'm happy to say that after a few years of getting over that, I'm getting married in one month. That reflects my optimism about maintaining a happy, healthy relationship and being intense about work issues. It's very important to me not to become so one-dimensional that work takes over everything else.

Another thing that's very important to me is my faith, and that surprises people. They assume that scientists in general would find it difficult to have coexisting within them a belief in a personal god. And yet to me that is the unifying principle of who I am. And it's not a faith which was sort of acquired as a child and which I've just not been able to grow out of, which is the other thing people tend to assume. I acquired that faith at age 27, and through a series of basically logical explorations into whether or not a belief in God is something that makes sense. If it didn't make sense, I would not be able to do it. And I can assure you that after looking at those issues, for me I find absolutely no conflict between being a scientist who absolutely insists on, "Show me the data, before I will accept your conclusions," and being a person who has a strong belief in a personal god. They are areas of human existence which overlap in some ways, but they look at the world in different fashions. And for me as a scientist, to be able to blend those things together so that a new discovery takes on some sort of eternal significance is really gratifying. And it's something that I would never want to give up.

Is intensity the key to what you've been able to achieve, or is there more to it?

Francis Collins: I think you have to really care about what you're doing, because anything worth doing is going to be challenging and it's going to have a high risk of failure. I have failed more times in my life than I could tell you about. Hunting for disease genes is a very failure-prone process and that's mostly what I've done in my scientific career -- for cystic fibrosis, for Huntington's disease. We're right now hunting for the genes for adult onset diabetes, which is the hardest thing I've ever done and I don't know if it's going to work. I have a sign on my wall which is a quote from Winston Churchill, which says, "Success is nothing more than going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I think that says a lot. You've got to expect this, especially in science.

I don't know any scientists who have a success rate of their experiments greater than about one in ten. Ninety percent, total flops, learn nothing, something was dreadfully wrong, just wasted time. Of the ten percent that actually succeed, maybe ten percent of those actually contribute in some way to new knowledge, and the rest just sort of confirmed something that was already known. So if one is going to do this -- and don't get me wrong, it's the most exhilarating thing in the world to do if you decide that this is your calling -- that one has to expect failure. If you're doing experiments that work all the time, you're not working on anything very interesting. You're not really at the cutting edge, you're just sort of replicating things that were already known.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

That's a hard thing to get used to at first.

Boy, I can remember when I first got into science, in genetics in a serious way, I felt the clock was ticking and I just had to do something meaningful. And I had to prove myself in short order, or everybody would figure out that I was really clueless and I had no talent, and was not going to pan out. And the first few months everything I tried failed. And I would go home at night just feeling so depressed and so discouraged and wondering, "Should I just quit?" I still remember that sort of intense feeling of failure. Not to say that I've gotten any better at this, I still fail at the same rate, but I think I've learned that that just comes with the territory. And it's okay to fail at the experiment. It doesn't mean you've failed as a human being. One has to learn that.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

I've also been lucky in this regard: I'm trained as a physician as well as a scientist. Mixing these two things together is wonderful: clinical interactions with real patients, and then going back to the lab and doing an experiment When I go see a patient, even if I have nothing to offer that person, even if they have a disease that I have no therapy for and all I can do is hold their hand and talk to them about what's coming, and if necessary cry with them -- and one needs to do that sometimes -- I know when I walk away from that interaction I will feel like something important happened there. It might be wrenching, it might be heartbreaking, sometimes it might be exhilarating, but it was meaningful, it mattered. I can count on that, that never fails. The lab isn't like that.

In the lab, you could go for three or four weeks, sometimes longer, without having the sense that you did anything worthwhile. But when you have that occasional flash -- it doesn't come very often -- that occasional flash where you see something, you know something that nobody else ever knew before, that makes it all worthwhile. That's that sort of moment of inspiration, that recognition of some new phenomenon that only God is aware of until that moment. That keeps you going. That gets you through all those months of failed experiments and flawed hypotheses, and keeps you wanting to go on to the next step.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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This page last revised on Sep 19, 2010 13:25 EDT
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