Ari Patrinos on Involvement of Physical Scientists in the HGP
  Ari Patrinos     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Mar 2006

What surprised me the most was how successful we were in training so many very competent physical scientists into it. I suspected all along that there would be some of them who would be intrigued by it and the promise. But I never expected that we would get so many prominent people so envious from the other sciences. So envious and so passionate about, in fact, trying their hand and helping out. One thing that I did irked some of my biologist friends especially at the NIH, is I worked very, very hard to bring into the genome world a group of mostly physicists and engineers and mathematicians that go about by the name of JASON. Some people think that stands for July, August, September, October, November, which are the months that they meet, but that’s not really the case. This is a group of about fifty mostly physical scientists who are very, very smart. Mostly from academia and have been coming together as a group for decades now to solve problems of interest to the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy and the intelligence community. So there are people, for example, that look at cryptography or the ones that have explored the feasibility of nuclear weapons. You know, you name it. Mostly in the physical sciences. And that includes Nobel laureates like Burt Richter, for example. Other prominent philosophers, physicists, scientists like Freeman Dyson and you know the list is a pretty long one.

I was very engaged with this group from the late ‘80s mostly on the climate science. I got them interested in climate science. But then when I got seduced by the Human Genome Project, I thought, gee, here’s an opportunity to bring a group of smart people that have never done anything like this before, never seen anything like this before. What would they say? So I was successful in getting them interested in this project and they took it on, in fact, and even did some summer studies. That’s one of the things they do. They get together in the summer for a period of seven or eight weeks, huddle together in different groups and look at individual problems, where they take a stab at solutions. Obviously, it’s not a very in-depth study but you know when you get a lot of very good brains together in a small space, they can sometimes make some interesting discoveries. They got involved in the genome project and, in fact, have stayed involved over the last decade or so. And I think partly because of my—I’m taking some credit here where I don’t think I maybe deserve it, but I’ll take it anyway. Partly because of my influence now the JASON group includes biologists. You know, it has people like Steve Block and Jerry Joyce. You know for the first time they’ve got biologists. They’ve got chemists! They even have some women! You know, it used to be all men. And guess what? Now if you look at their summer program or the presentations that are given when they come to town two days, usually a Friday and a Saturday, I would say twenty to thirty percent of the presentations have some life sciences component. In recent years very much unfortunately related to bioterrorism for example, where the melding of the physical sciences and the biological sciences can have a significant impact with respect to mitigation, for example.

They also had a little article in Science magazine that got some of my colleagues at NIH and my good friend, Francis Collins, very upset. They have, and I can freely say, they have the arrogance of the physicists, you know. Physicists know everything. So when they came in and looked at this problem first of all their first pronouncement was, you guys aren’t doing enough in technology development. Before you do the technology development you shouldn’t even start sequencing. That was their argument. And I think a lot of the people in the Human Genome Project at the time that were toiling in the trenches and working very hard to develop sequencing technologies got pretty ticked off because, you know, these guys coming out of the blue and never really having done anything in this business were making pronouncements about the project. There was no question that we were also very, very sensitive because of the clout of this particular group. You know, there could be some politicians or senior political masters at agencies that would perhaps heed their words and come down hard on the funding. At that time our funding kept growing with the Human Genome Project because we kept promising that we will meet the objective. So we were very paranoid about the funding and for good reasons.

Ari Patrinos, currently is a president of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. He is best known for his leading roles in the development of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.S. Human Genome Project. He earned his undergraduate degree from the National Technical University of Athens and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and astronautical sciences from Northwestern University.

Patrinos has worked in Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratory system since 1973. His research area includes biomedical engineering, atmospheric turbulence, environmental chemistry, climate change, and statistical methods. In 1995 he became the Associate Director for Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science and was responsible for human and microbial genome programs, structural biology, nuclear medicine and health effects, global environmental change. He helped create the DOE's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in 1997 and developed the DOE's Genomes to Life Program.

He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Geophysical Union, and a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.