James Kent on Challenges of the HGP
  James Kent     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

Yeah, and I think I was lucky that I came in when I did because I missed the darkest moments, which was when they were shifting from the strategy of producing kind of the going straight clone at a time. To finish the initial strategy was first we finished ten percent of the genome and then we finish it kind of a chromosome at a time. And sort of start it, finish it, then go on to the next part which was a very reasonable way of doing things. But then in response to Celera, they decided that instead we needed to sort of like just get a rough draft as soon as possible of as much as possible before everything gets locked up in patents and everything like that. It was an enormous enterprise and they had been on this course and they trained everybody on this course and then they had to shift course very rapidly and that was hard. But I came in after that so I didn’t suffer there.

So it was always more—probably the hardest parts for me were for the paper we wrote afterwards. Because the initial stuff, it was such a flurry. And everybody was sort of so supportive and people were working together. Everyone had a very clear common goal. But then after the initial results were up then we were going to do a paper analysis of it. And scientists, of course, don’t all agree with each other nor should they, but I think it maybe that the record of the most co-authors on a single paper and trying to get it so that you would get Science, but at the same time it was this huge enterprise. And so it was kind of managed really in a kind in a fairly top down fashion with Eric Lander on top. Then people underneath that to him reporting to him. The publication is the lifeblood of scientists. I mean it’s how they keep their jobs and stuff. Anyway, it was just—I think there was a meeting for two hours to decide the order of our names and the footnote on the Science paper.

I mean, it’s kind of natural, but it’s harder doing science, I think, at that scale. I know I’m much happier working with smaller groups of people and stuff. And I think it was necessary then, but I’m sure glad it’s over. That now I can work with six people I know instead of—and also, just it was such a worldwide enterprise, coordinating the times was hard. I’m like semi-nocturnal by nature. I like to stay up till three and I like to get up about eleven is good. And that would have been fine if I was in England, but I was in California, so we had to get up so that they would be at the same time as in California. And this may be why Japan and China didn’t have like a bigger part of the project because we were actually just getting the time when all of us could be awake at the same time was actually a challenge.

I think sort of the natural stresses of trying to integrate so many people. That was for me what was the hardest. I don’t know if I would actually characterize it as a dark moment, but it was the most difficult. Probably the darkest moment was as I said before when all of a sudden there was this, it looked like everybody’s work might be just sort of scooped by Celera and they had to change course very quickly and stuff.

Jim Kent is a research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. After a stint working in the computer animation industry, he entered the Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology Ph.D. program at Santa Cruz. While completing his degree, he became increasingly interested in bioinformatics. Concurrently, the human genome was being sequenced, accumulating in the databases and was scheduled to be released in one month’s time—however, still no technology was in place to assemble its many sequences. In one month, Jim Kent created a computer program called the GigAssembler and computationally compiled for the first time, the entire human genome so that it could be released to the public at its intended deadline.

Jim Kent focuses on understanding the way in which genes are turned on and off to create varying outcomes.