J. Craig Venter

Do you believe that biological production of hydrogen will exist someday?File PhotoMolecular biologist J. Craig Venter is a scientist whose status transcends his own circle. Within the last year, Venter has been interviewed or mentioned in dozens of newspaper stories. His bold, singular scientific adventures generate comment and criticism, and his direct, conversational approach sounds more plebian than patrician. He's not a man who readily bows to barriers, a quality the press finds irresistibl

Christine Bahls
Apr 25, 2004

Do you believe that biological production of hydrogen will exist someday?

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File Photo

Molecular biologist J. Craig Venter is a scientist whose status transcends his own circle. Within the last year, Venter has been interviewed or mentioned in dozens of newspaper stories. His bold, singular scientific adventures generate comment and criticism, and his direct, conversational approach sounds more plebian than patrician. He's not a man who readily bows to barriers, a quality the press finds irresistible.

Venter, 57, who introduced whole-genome shotgun sequencing and expressed sequence tags (ESTs) to the world, was a born scrapper. One of six children, Venter says he grew up in a household where amenities were few. Often in trouble at home and school, it was the witnessed horrors of Vietnam, where he served as a corpsman, which propelled him toward his future. "I have an attitude and intelligence," he says. "I was destined to make...

Describe your scientific situation

I have complete freedom, because I have a foundation that can fund, at least to a limited extent, the science I want to do.

Do you question yourself?

All the time; that's an important part of moving ahead. Confidence is something you learn through lots of hard lessons in life. I only seem confident.

What's your favorite nonscientific thing to do?

Sailing. That's how I rejuvenate my brain. It blows away a lot of anxiety and hypocrisy I have to deal with.

What's the smartest thing you ever did?

Forcing myself to start my education over after I got out of the military, even though I felt the chance of succeeding was very low. I took a big risk. I was definitely not a great student.

What's the dumbest thing you ever did?

That would be a very complicated list. ... I learned things quite often the hard way, which is why I know so much today. I learned from my mistakes, and I rarely make the same mistake twice.

How were your science grades?

C's and D's – science was very poorly taught. ... One of the keys about me being a highly successful scientist is that by avoiding the school system early on, I didn't have the curiosity beaten out of me.

What kind of trouble did you get into in school?

"Leave It to Beaver" kinds of trouble. I refused to take a spelling test because I thought it was really dumb to memorize a list and regurgitate it the next day. The irony is, I spelled out the most letters in history: three billion in the human genome.

What is stressful for you?

Not having enough hours to do what I want to do. The other stress: hypocrisy. Mindless or political attitudes limit intellectual development.

What's it like to be J. Craig Venter?

My mind is always very active, and I'm always dealing with a lot of continuous, complicated issues. I have the wonderful, fortunate position of being able to work in areas that I find intellectually stimulating. I have to be deeply asleep and unconscious to not be thinking about what I am doing in my life.

You don't suffer fools gladly, do you?

I prefer not to suffer them at all. Life is too short. It's fools that limit our society. Science is the ultimate pursuit of truth. When some of my colleagues use [science] for untruthful political platforms, they are squandering opportunities and breaking one of my fundamental rules.

What are your favorite papers?

There are four. The 1991 EST paper, [because] of the randomness of applying this high-throughput method to problems considered intractable before.1 The Haemophilus paper, [because] it incorporates the notions from the EST paper, but it's rounded off with neat pure science.2 The Drosophila paper was an intellectual challenge,3 [and the human genome paper] was the most difficult one we've written.4 When people read these papers hundreds of years from now, we won't be embarrassed.

What has made you different?

We are all given these opportunities ... Lots of people in this field have had similar ideas. Maybe their timing was off, maybe they didn't have the courage of their convictions. I don't think I was the first ... I was the first to execute them.

Christine Bahls can be reached at cbahls@the-scientist.com.