Maynard Olson on Rich Roberts
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

So Rich Roberts was an early enthusiast of the genome project. And had done, you know, all this wonderful work on restriction enzymes—it became kind of a hobby of his. It’s not what he is, you know, famous for. He really was sort of Mr. Restriction Enzyme. And then in the early days, you know, people like John Sulston and I were just completely dependent on restriction enzymes and the physical mapping we were doing and so forth. And so he was very interested in those types of projects. And actually tried a little genome project here at Cold Spring Harbor very early on the adenovirus sequencing. It actually didn’t work very well. But, you know, he had the idea.

He’s a colorful person. Rich is a—I remember, I can’t picture too many scientists doing some of the things that I’ve done with Rich Roberts but he had this long time support group that he mobilized for the Institute of Excellence in Molecular Biology in Lahore. And one time in the early nineties he got Bob Waterston and Phil Green and me and a number of others to go to Pakistan and support this institute. And well we did our best to support the institute, met with the President, Chief Minister of Punjab and so forth to emphasize how important this institute was. All these people of course were swept away in coups you know a few months after we left. But anyway we had—we did our best. But then they took us off, you know, this was pure Rich Roberts kind of thing is that we had to see some of Pakistan. We couldn’t just sit there in Lahore which was already quite an adventure with donkey carts and SUVs kind of vying for lanes on the streets. But we headed off for the northwest frontier province up on the border of Afghanistan and it’s impossible to get to. The way you get there is that you sit on a runway in Peshawar which is right at the heart of course of a lot of the exodus from the Afghan war with the Soviet Union and so forth. It’s still a hot bed of Taliban and of Al-Qaeda and so forth. So you sit on a runway there and I think some Russian version of a DC-3 and await word as to whether or not the pass—the Lowari Pass that you have to fly over is clear enough for the plane to get over the mountain. Because the runway is so short at the landing site that you can’t take a bigger plane from Peshawar to Chitral where we were headed. But the DC 3 was near its altitude limit getting over the pass coming in. And so it just was a—only every few days could you, would they get a window where they could go. And they didn’t know until the last minute cause they called someone on the phone up at the pass and so we were sitting there and we got the go ahead and we made it over the pass and explored, anyway, all these valleys up there and came—eventually drove back in vans. They didn’t want to risk—we had an appointment with the president of Pakistan so we couldn’t risk the fact that when they called up to the pass that the plane wouldn’t get the go-ahead so we went by van.

This was—it’s a miracle that I’m here to tell this story actually. I think it’s one of the two or three times in my life when I was knowingly near death for quite a period because we got up on this pass in this little Toyota van. And it was snowing and so the road was slushy kind of mud. It was a one-lane road with forty switchbacks as it approached the top of the pass complete fall off with no guardrail on one side. Heavy two way truck traffic on this one lane road in the blizzard. And so at every switchback there would be heavy contention between opposing large trucks driven by Afghans who would get out of the truck holding a machine gun and discuss the right of way issues with the other truck drivers. And somehow or another this all worked out, switchback by switchback by switchback. And we eventually made it just in the very nick of time to meet with the president of Pakistan, not having taken a shower or even changed my underwear for several days. We were escorted into the palace and had a very nice conference with him. And that’s Rich Roberts.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.