Saturday, July 14, 2007

Genomic Kiss-and-Tell

I've been following the goings-on of my former bosses, J. Craig Venter and Claire Fraser, for several years, but Forbes Magazine's online issue presents a handy summary of all the gossip since I fled the genome sequencing world. I worked for Craig and Claire from 1993 to 1999, longer than most scientists and technicians lasted. For several years, I found their Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) a stimulating, fun, and well-paying place to work.

The article portrays Craig as arrogant and Claire as more reasonable.

TIGR researchers had worked in lockstep behind Venter. But Fraser nurtured a more independent approach, akin to that of a university faculty. TIGR thrived and developed a reputation for understanding the genes of scary germs....

Perhaps the author favors Claire because Craig "won" and Fraser "lost" in the struggle for control of The Institute for Genomic Research (Now part of the J. Craig Venter Institute--why wait for someone else to name something after you?), or perhaps it is because Claire presents herself well to men, including journalists. Certainly, my own departure from TIGR was precipitated by Claire's "management style."

...Venter jumped at the chance for the big job, sequencing the entire human genome, at the biotech Celera. He took a select group of TIGR's best and brightest with him, creating hurt feelings among those left behind.

Researchers regularly jumped ship from TIGR, and in 1998 Craig took the remaining coworkers that had made TIGR enjoyable for me. Several people who felt "left behind" were able to get Celera jobs, but it didn't look like an attractive workplace for me. I could see then my days at TIGR were numbered. My work just wasn't interesting after Claire arbitrarily moved me from bioinformatics into microbial physiology. I might as well have been moved to the accounting department.

Being the Bono of genetics allows him to fund audacious ideas that might otherwise be starved of support, but here's the thing to know about Venter: He warps the reality field around genetic research through sheer force of ego and showmanship. Lots of researchers are already crafting synthetic organisms by modifying the genes of existing germs, but Venter is going for an entirely man-made organism. It's a huge, stupendous goal, but he's also using the smallest and most fragile bacteria around. Lots of researchers have been decoding the genes of rare microbes, but only Venter did it by scooping up gallons of seawater from the deck of his 100-foot yacht....

The behaviors Forbes' journalist finds so appalling in Craig Venter are rampant at NIH and in Big Science at universities. If you want to see someone "warp a reality field," spend some time with James Watson. The only difference between Craig and NIH's bigshots is that, when NIH-ers tried to squash Craig like a bug, as is their wont, he slipped out of their reach and turned to venture capitalists and the media for support. I admired him for his inventiveness, and I found the grandiose "public relations" statements humorous.

The "Bono" projects are the same ones Craig was promoting to prospective employees like me in 1993, and I wrote a pile of proposals and overviews on these topics through the years. I think I recognized a fragment of my text in a recent press release. The SeaTIGR was my favorite scrapped project--a North Sea trawler refitted with luxury accommodations, it was intended to turn Craig into Jacques Cousteau and also to impress venture capitalists and visiting dignitaries. Unfortunately, no one installed any scientific equipment, and, lacking holds full of herring, the boat wallowed like a hog even in a light breeze. It was a seasickness machine.

Besides providing a paycheck, working for Craig let me rub elbows with venture capitalists and Nobel laureates. I got to meet senators, see $4000 suits up close, and visit the interiors of multi-million-dollar mansions in Potomac. Neither the expensive suits nor the huge houses were as nice as I expected. The newsmakers were an interesting mix. Some Nobel laureates, like Hamilton Smith (mentioned as Craig's workhorse in the Forbes article) are charming and truly brilliant, and some of them are like James Watson, who has never been accused of being a nice man. It was a very instructive experience, showing me I could leave the bright lights of the sequencing facility for Droop Mountain and never miss a thing.


Dave said...

Geez, Rebecca, you should write a book!

Jeff said...

I have currently worked for Craig for 5 years, it is always good to read things from people that see past the media B.S. from writers that have an agenda, good job!!

Rebecca Clayton said...

Dave, I've tried to write about Genome-land before, and given up, for fear of lawsuits. I thought this Forbes article was biased enough to take the heat off any criticism I might have offered.

Evidently, Jeff thinks so--he seems to see me as a Craig fan.

Jeff, I wouldn't say I see through "media B.S." I worked for Craig while he was still developing a P.R. persona. He sought out the attention he gets now, and seems to believe there's no such thing as bad publicity. Certainly, it continues to work for him.

Larry said...

What a fascinating glimpse into your pre-Droop Mountain past, Rebecca! I've wondered at times...

GanymedeDC said...

I just happened upon this post while doing some business research for a biotech consulting project.

Yes, the public often forgets that the "hallowed halls" of science have as much drama as any other discipline.

I was in the same program as Claire Fraser as an undergraduate at RPI. We were in most of the same Biology, Chemistry, and Physics classes for 4 years. Regardless of my attempts at humor and platonic friendship , I never really succeeded at being a friend of Claire's. My friends and I dubbed her "the ice queen" since evoking a smile was difficult. Mind you, this was the mid '70s. We were all biology/premed students vying for few slots in medicine or genetic research, but most of us could put the competition aside and have fun.

A couple of years ago, while raising money for a biotech start-up, I had the occasion to call Claire. I can understand why researchers left when she became President of TIGR and imposed her management style.

I thought it was ironic that she and Venter were paired together.

Ahhh, good to see there is still melodrama in science!