Science Across the Borders
Eric Lander's name is familiar to anyone who has kept an eye on scientific breakthroughs of the past decade or so: As a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, he played a key role in steering the Human Genome Project to completion. Heading up the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, he's got a hand in most of the things that are possible now that the human genome is sequenced. The challenge for biology, he says, is no less than to reveal the molecular basis of human disease. His "to do" list includes discovering the mechanisms of cancer, decoding the signals that cells use to communicate, and laying bare the sources of genetic variation. He's equally enthusiastic about developing the technology and techniques needed to do that work.
But Lander is not one of those researchers more comfortable dealing with lab rats than people. His multifaceted background (he was trained in mathematics and taught economics before going into biology) helps him talk across scientific borders and steer notoriously individualistic scientists to work together. With his easy metaphors, he can get even lay audiences excited about concepts that otherwise would sail over their heads. Lander recently talked about his work with U.S. News's Katherine Hobson:
People worried that no ambitious young scientist would want to sign on to the Human Genome Project-it was such a huge project, of which they'd be just a small part.
If you set a worthy but audacious challenge before people it brings out the best in them. There was a sense of special mission. Everybody working on the project knew that they were doing something they'd be proud [of]. Some of their grandchildren will live because of what they did.
I'm ready to sign up.
How could you not? How could you take a job that paid two times as much but wasn't going to change the world?
How did you build a group of people to tackle such a complex and multifaceted problem?
Science depends on individual creativity, and yet to accomplish some goals we have to work together. The notion was that we should divide the work into many small pieces among many centers. But then the problem you're taking on is a small piece of the whole and it's hard to get people excited about it. What worked for us was laying out ... the challenge of, "What if you had to do the entire human genome?" We should figure out the ... strategies that would let us tackle the entire problem.
Science is so specialized, though, isn't it?
Traditionally, biologists who are doing wet lab work and then computational work think of themselves as being in different boxes. We banned that language from the very beginning. The computer scientist, the engineer, the biologist-everybody owned the whole problem.
The right way to decipher the genome wasn't at all clear. How did you lead in that environment?
A lot of it is managing in the face of tremendous uncertainty. You have to be willing to rethink the plan at least every six months. It was destabilizing-but really important-that we were prepared to put on the table every three to four months whether we were doing the right thing.... We made many, many midcourse corrections.
How did your eclectic background help?
I spoke multiple languages and therefore I could play translator. I can speak some mathematics and some computer science and some economics, some medicine, some business. By being able to listen and understand what everyone brings [to the project], you can figure out how to bring out the best in individuals and the team. The job of the leader is to be a catalyst.
How do you motivate individualistic scientists to work as part of a team?
[An organization] has to satisfy a passion you have. In the case of the HGP it was to change the world. There are things we can accomplish together that no one of us can do alone. What young person going into science doesn't want to make a real dent in cancer? Doing it by yourself there's only so far you can go.
How do you handle self-doubt when you're leading a team?
Any reasonable person in science is racked with doubt and insecurity at all times. The important thing is not to share those doubts but to share the vision. When others doubt, you have to be their rock of stability.
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.