Harvard's Dr. George Church, PhD, shares how his childhood strategy of "reading the pictures" proved to be advantageous for his scientific studies.
George Church, PhD, the renowned Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of TIME’S 100 most influential people in the world in 2017, was one of the first geneticists to sequence the human genome, and he has been advancing the scientific technologies to decipher humanity’s genetic code since the 1970s. Dr. Church initiated the Human Genome Project in 1984 and the Personal Genome Project in 2005, and both projects were instrumental in allowing scientists to connect human genetic information (human DNA sequence, gene expression, etc.) with human trait information (medical information, physical traits, etc.) and environmental exposures. Through his Harvard lab and 35+ startup companies, Dr. Church is probing the possibilities of genetic engineering and editing the genetic code to see if human cells can become resistant to all viruses, aging can be reversed, extinct species can be resurrected, and full-sized organs can be grown from DNA.
How did you discover that you were dyslexic?
Well, the main thing I was bad at was timed reading because I’ve always read very slowly. Instead I focused on images in books through elementary school, like the full 51 volume Time Life series, Understanding Science and Nature. Eventually, my mother earned her PhD in clinical psychology as I was becoming a teenager, and she tested me.
What type of reading instruction did you receive?
I was required to take remedial reading classes in eighth grade and my freshman year of college [at Duke University]. I grew up in Florida, and there I was made to go to a night class in addition to my regular school. The class had dyslexics and illiterates mixed in with speed readers, which was the strangest thing. Because the class was fairly unstructured, occasionally I would pretend to be in the speed-reading class. Apparently, I was really good at recognizing the words that they would flash incredibly fast onto the board. This instruction did not amount to anything, neither the remedial reading nor speed reading, but it helped me open my mind to the idea of other possibilities in different ways of learning.
You completed two bachelor’s degrees in zoology and chemistry in two years at Duke University before eventually receiving your PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard University. How did you navigate your demanding academic course load?
I would “read the pictures” growing up, and I gravitated towards STEM subjects that required less reading. [As an undergrad and grad student] I invented work-around skills. Because I would read very slowly, I would just read all the textbooks before the course started. I would just read them very slowly, but then I’d be done. The other thing I would do is just listen in class. Other students wouldn’t listen, so they had to read, but I could listen and remember just about everything. Reading is still very slow for me, but I figure it out like a puzzle. I also listen to books on tape, or e-books today.
What is your perspective on neurodiversity, and how did you come to this conclusion?
When I was young, I tried hard to blend in and not stand out as different. My main goal in life was to be ordinary. If I would have been able to be ordinary, I would have, but then I still would be. In a world where everyone is in the middle of a bell curve, any point outside of the bell curve makes you think differently. For some small but impactful niches [like professions] being different on any axis (dyslexia, narcolepsy, ADHD, OCD, autism) can help to think outside of the box and ask or answer positively disruptive questions. This is valuable if you happen to be a hard worker who is at the right place at the right time with a different idea. By being different, you’re not tempted to be ordinary.
By being different, you’re not tempted to be ordinary.
You’re known as the “father of personal genomics and synthetic biology,” but have you faced any hurdles due to your dyslexia?
I had many social hurdles, particularly social awkwardness. I know a lot of teenagers feel they have social awkwardness, but I think mine was deeper than that. I had to figure out social workarounds to figure out how I could do what others were doing in some other way. Academically, I had to repeat ninth grade and the first two years of my PhD. Using a computer keyboard since 1968 has addressed some problems I have with writing.
On the other hand, do you believe you have experienced any advantages during your career as a dyslexic?
My focus on “reading the pictures” gave me good spatial skills and good memory for images. When I was young, one of my favorite things to do was look at Civil War pictures through 1870s stereoscopes. As I looked to combine my interests in the natural world and the highly unnatural world of math when I was older, I found crystallography [the science of examining the properties and inner structures of crystals to determine the arrangement of atoms]. Crystallography is all about spatial relationships, symmetry, complicated 3D structures, and navigating your way through them. I learned quickly that I was good at that. That was one of the first big payoffs because I built the rest of my science on the foundation of crystallography, which in turn was based on the foundation of looking at pictures a lot.
You have had a prolific career, but is there a particular professional accomplishment of which you are most proud?
Since 1986, I’ve had about 300 researcher trainees that have worked in my laboratory, and they have been exposed to a radically innovative environment. It is very gratifying to be surrounded by bright, hardworking people capable of understanding even my most complex, forward-looking ideas and swiftly implementing them. It is rewarding to see the fruits of our many years of effort in use by people all over the world. Also, I am proud of the idea of molecular multiplexing via barcodes from my 1984 PhD thesis.
At the Church Lab at Harvard, are there certain cultural values that are most important to you as a leader in fostering an innovative environment?
I want people to follow their dreams and enjoy themselves every day. I don’t “lead” by commanding, but by example, or by slowly arranging an environment, like one where it’s okay to fail. When the consequences are not high, you can fail multiple times in a row so you can succeed. The word “impossible” is rejected. Instead of throwing an idea in the trash, we put it up on the wall and look at it every few months to see if there’s a new technique we developed that suddenly makes it possible. Another thing we try to do is bring down costs. Rather than figuring out how to raise money to solve a problem, we figure out how to reduce costs, as that has the advantage of helping people all over the world that can’t possibly raise that amount of money. Ultimately, our goal is to make everything [technologies and resources] free.
When the consequences are not high, you can fail multiple times in a row so you can succeed. The word “impossible” is rejected. ;
What are you most excited about in your field of genetics that is to come in the next 50 years?
Making DNA reading affordable to everyone (free or nearly so), aging reversal therapies, carbon sequestration via wild ecosystems, full bio-recycling as needed for space colonies, and reading and writing brain components.
Could you elaborate on what developments of reading and writing brain components might be in store for the future?
One possibility is biological computing might start replacing electronics because it is more energy efficient and can do certain tasks better. Often, it’s phrased the other way that electronics might replace humans, but it’s possible that we, as molecular machines, might replace mechanical devices. For example, in Jeopardy, where the computer [Watson] supposedly won, it was using 200,000 watts and the human brains were using 20 watts, so that’s hardly a fair fight. Right now, computers are temporarily better at raw memory and raw math abilities, but we’ve recently shown that molecular memory might be better because you could store the entire internet in the palm of your hand as opposed to a megawatt exabyte facility sitting on an acre of land.
Through genetic engineering, could we cure diseases and viruses to prevent future pandemics such as the outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19?
We have engineered cells to be resistant to viruses one at a time based on the cell’s receptor. In the case of COVID-19, if you remove the ACE2 protein, you will be resistant to that coronavirus. We know how to do this one at a time, but it is hard to remove all receptors throughout life. Another strategy we have is we can change the code, or recoding of the genome, which makes us resistant to all viruses, including viruses we have not seen before. So far, our coding has been aimed at industrial microorganisms, but it could work for human transplanted cells or cell therapies. In principle, you could make the whole human body resistant to all viruses if you had good delivery. We are working on that, and we have started an international project to make different organisms resistant to all viruses, including pigs, plants, and humans.
For our Windward students who are also dyslexic or have language-based learning disabilities, what is a message you would share with them?
Our experiences will vary tremendously even if we share labels but find your passions and strengths and chemotax swiftly towards them. One of my favorite aphorisms as well is “I have been very lucky and find that the harder I work the luckier I am.”