J. Craig Venter on Luck vs Effort in Science
  J. Craig Venter     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Mar 2006

It’s not accidental. I think, you know, good scientists—and I trained with some of the best scientists in the world. My mentor was Nate Kaplan, who was the co-discoverer of coenzyme A. I worked with Fritz Lipmann, who got the Nobel Prize for discovering ATP as the main source of energy. I was exposed to the best scientists in biochemistry early in my career.

Lipman wrote a wonderful book called The Wanderings of a Biochemist. He talks in this book abut how you start in a certain area and you see where that path takes you. And I think my whole career has been that of doing the best science I can do but then you look at the data, you look at the information, you look at the approaches and say, well, here’s a new application. It will take me in this direction or that direction. So it’s, I think, most really good scientists follow this tortuous route of, you know, nothing is linear for the really good ideas. And I think, we started with ESTs. It was just an idea, but I was able to try it right away. I didn’t have to write a grant and submit it to NIH and wait six months or nine months and be listed all the reasons that it wouldn’t work.

Steve Henikoff has the same idea, a very similar one for ESTs. He told me afterwards—our paper came out in Science, he said that he had written a grant to NIH to do something similar with Drosophila. He said he had a five page critique from the genome center for all the reasons the technique wouldn’t work and it would fail and they weren’t going to fund him to do it. So I think the advantage that I had was that I had the idea, but I had the resources where I could go right in the lab and do the experiment. If Steve Henikoff had the resources he would have just done the experiment and we would have had two independent sources of the EST method. I think people get similar ideas, maybe because of the time, the thinking that goes on. There was lots of discussion about starting with cDNAs instead of starting with sequencing the genome. But you know execution is key. You know, my mentor, the late Nate Kaplan, probably had ten really brilliant ideas every day, but he didn’t have the means to execute on them, to follow up and try them. So he used to say ideas were a dime a dozen. I think the same thing. I think good ideas, I get them every day. It’s the one that you really turn into something that change the course of science. But you have to do that work. You have to take that effort to take an idea and make it real.

J. Craig Venter, biologist and genomic research pioneer, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1946. Following military service in Vietnam, he studied biochemistry as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, where he also received a Ph.D. in Physiology and Pharmacology in 1975. He joined the faculty of the Medical School of State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976, joining its affiliated Roswell Park Cancer Institute in 1982 as Professor and Associate Chief Cancer Research Scientist. Beginning in 1982, and for the next decade, Dr. Venter headed various sections of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

In 1992 he founded The Institute for Genomic Research (known as TIGR,) where he and colleagues became the first to successfully sequence the genome of an entire organism. Dr. Venter's Celera Genomics, founded in 1998, used a strategy known as the whole genome shotgun approach to compete with the publicly-funded Human Genome Project, which served to accelerate the mapping of the whole human genome by 2000. Dr. Venter's current venture, the J. Craig Venter Institute, was formed in 2006, from the merger of several predecessor enterprises. A leader in genomic research, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in January 2008, the largest synthetically derived DNA structure, advancing it towards its goal of creating a living cell based on an entirely synthetic genome. In September 2007, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the sequencing of Dr. Venter's genome, the first sequencing of an individual's genome.

Among Dr. Venter's numerous awards and honors are the American Academy of Microbiology Fellow (1997), the American Chemical Society, Division of Biochemical Technology David Perlman Memorial Lectureship Award (2000), and the U.S. State Department, Secretary's Open Forum Public Service Award (2001). Dr. Venter is a member of the American Society of Human Genetics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Microbiology, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.