Recorded: 31 May 2003
That was actually my first meeting at Cold Spring Harbor. Not that I was unaware [of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,] and maybe a little bit of that helped, in fact, one of my first introductions to this place was through the symposium volumes. And this was when I was an undergraduate in India. I looked at one volume because it was very close to my interest at that point in time, and still is, in population genetics.
And very quickly I found out that in the front that there was a listing of many other meetings, so I went from one volume to the other volume. And I had a very wonderful sense of this place simply because of all the pictures in the front. So growing up in India at a time when much of science, clearly molecular biology and genetics was happening outside, this suddenly became a very live thing.
After my graduate studies in this country, because I was working on questions of evolution and the beginnings of doing mapping in the human, I don’t think there were really meetings that were specific to that at Cold Spring Harbor at that point in time, at that time. So I didn’t quite attend meetings here.
And when I heard of this meeting in 1986, it was sort of absolutely clear to me that I wanted to come not only because of the meeting, but because of where it was.
I remember, I mean, I remember everything of where I came, that I flew in. I remember getting into a van to come up to this place. I remember many of the people who were there. But I think the most important part of the meeting was this, I would say, this infusion of molecular biology and a different kind of genetics than classical genetics in the human, which is what I had been exposed to. I think that human genetics then and in some sense now, but not really in the same magnitude, was quite descriptive. So the questions were very interesting. But there was very little way to get into the details of how genes function in humans, in human disease, how they were altered. And I think this meeting was the first time I realized that this was absolutely possible, in this meeting because of the discussion of the genome project which I had read about and the beginnings of sequencing. It was absolutely clear that this is what I wanted to do. I met many, many people, some that I knew, many that I didn’t know at this meeting. In some sense, there are little isolated details that I remember, but much of it is also a blur because so much happened during that meeting. So you might say I was just as much preoccupied with what I was going to do after hearing the talks and talking with people than to remember the specifics of who I talked with which I also remember.
It was a very major turning point for me to making me realize that finding the molecular details of genes in humans and human disease was probably now really feasible. And it was not only feasible you also had a way to go forward. And what impressed me most at the end of the meeting when I went home is that not only was it feasible that we could find a way forward, but that it could happen in a short period of time that I could participate.
You know, the genome project, obviously there were many discussions after that.
I think it’s not often emphasized that there was actually quite a bit of resistance to it. There was actually more resistance than we, today, think there was. And it may have been different in different campuses. It could have been that in various places there were more supporters or something of that sort. But clearly where I was, I was a beginning faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh there was tremendous resistance to the idea. And this, of course, wasn’t very pleasant at the level of individual interactions, but coming to this meeting completely convinced me that this was the thing to do. This was the only thing to do.
I think there were two kinds of debates. The important one was actually a lesser debate. And I think an important part was whether we really should participate in a large project, and whether genomics would flower in the way that it has. And I think there was a lesser debate on that. Meaning no one quite said that we have to go back or continue on this gene by gene way of looking at human traits or human disease.
I think that much of the debate was really the practicality; could we sequence the human genome, could we do it in a timeframe that was real, could we do it at a cost that is real. And there was no doubt, as everybody knows, that many of the details were lacking. So I don’t think there was as much, and perhaps that’s what gave me and showed my interest and gave me courage that this was really doable and that this would happen. But we weren’t obviously, absolutely surest of what the details would be.
I think from the part of many people who objected to the idea, I think they objected more or they had problems…they would say, well, if you don’t know how to go forward, how would this come about? But I think many have commented on the fact that—I think if we knew exactly how to go forward, it wouldn’t have been so exciting. It was a very large way of viewing biology and the task of finding it out was just as important as the details.
Aravinda Chakravarti received his Ph.D. in Human Genetics from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston (1979). After a postdoctoral year at the University of Washington in Seattle, he joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Biostatistics and later the Department of Human Genetics as a professor.
In 1994 he moved to Case Western Reserve as Professor of Genetics and Medicine to apply genomic and computer-based methods to study common diseases that arise from a combination of genetic and non-genetic factors.
Dr Chakravarti is one of the Editors-in-Chief of Genome Research, and serves on the Advisory and Editorial Boards of numerous national and international journals and societies. He is a past member of the NIH National Advisory Council of the National Human Genome Research Institute and has chaired the NIH Subcommittee in the 3rd 5-year Genome Project Plan, and continues to serve on several NIH panels.
In 2000 he became Professor of Medicine at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and was named director of their new McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, where he is currently the Henry J. Knott Professor and Director.