Eric Lander on Personal Competition & Responsibility in the HGP
  Eric Lander     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Jun 2003

A fight when I became a winner. Every time we put in a grant application to the NIH we attempted to be pretty audacious about it. So, our very first application to do the mouse, we were competing against two real mouse labs; Coplin and Jenkins in the Jackson Labs and they knew a lot about mouse and we didn't know much about mouse and we worked for six months before the review of that grant. Came to the site visit where they reviewed three different mouse applications and it was clear that although those guys knew tons more about mouse, we were just pressing ourselves to the limit and were coming up with all sorts of crazy techniques and PCRs at scales that had never been done before and gels and things. And what the study section read out of that was intensity and a passion and a commitment. They let us do it.

It was for me the first NIH grant that I had ever submitted in my life and it was for fifteen million dollars. It was not the orthodox way to do things and at the time I had never published an experimental paper in my life, which the study section did actually make a note of, that I had never published a biology paper or at least an experimental biology paper and yet they gave us fifteen million dollars cause they saw that, you know, that we were going to bleed for this. We were going to make it happen. We came back and we said we're now going to do the whole human genome. We said that we're going to sequence and all that.

Every time the competition was about simply communicating a passion and, yeah, we ended up being the only mouse-sequencing center, we ended being one of the few large sequencing centers and then a mouse mapping center and sequencing center. But it was about getting across that no matter what, we weren't going to let it fail.

And that's what it felt like through fifteen years was that a few of us, you know, Bob Waterston and John Sulston and me and a few others, five, six, ten people had a responsibility. No one of us mattered. If I weren't there the genome project would have succeeded, and if Waterston wasn't there it would have succeeded. But if ten of us-all ten of us weren't there, it would never have happened. So no one person is indispensable, but it's a tremendous feeling to say that you know, you belong to a set of say a dozen people who as a set are indispensable. That's enough for me. That's really good. And there were, you know, something like a dozen people who were indispensable getting this thing off the ground. They were the people getting it off the ground who had seen it all the way through, shepherding it all the way through. They were the people who at every moment felt a personal responsibility that if there was an obstacle we had to solve it, and that there were no excuses and we'd find a way around it. It was interesting; it was a very interesting experience.

Eric Lander earned his A.B. in mathematics from Princeton University (1978) and D.Phil. in mathematics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University (1981).

He first came to the Whitehead Institute as a Whitehead Fellow in 1986, while still an assistant professor of managerial economics at the Harvard Business School and is currently Director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research and Professor of Biology at MIT. As director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research, Dr Lander has been one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project, contributing 30 percent of the total sequence of the human genome and developing and making freely available many of the key tools used in modern mammalian genomics.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and has been awarded the Beckman Prize for Lab Automation, the Chiron Prize for Biotechnology, and the Gairdner Award for his outstanding contribution to genomic research.

Lander has attended every human genome meeting at CSHL. At the request of Jim Watson, Lander gave his first lecture at the 1986 CSHL symposium on the Molecular Biology of Homo Sapiens.