From groundbreaking biologist to savvy entrepreneur and adventurous sailor, J. Craig Venter is arguably one of the leading — and perhaps one of the most controversial — scientists of the 21st century. The man who cracked the genetic code by heading up one of the teams to map the first human genome, Venter has been named 2010 Scientist of the Year by the San Diego Chapter of Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS).
ARCS, which provides awards for graduate student scholars, is honoring Venter on April 23 at the Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa in Mission Bay for his pioneering work in the new field of genomic research. In 1995, Venter and his team were the first to decode the genome (the complete genetic information) of a living organism using a “shotgun” technique, a shortcut to quickly find genes. Five years later, they discovered the Holy Grail of genomics by sequencing the human genome, the blueprint that determines whether we’re people instead of plants or animals. Now, researchers at the institute that bears Venter’s name are poised to actually create life — a synthetic genome that may eventually lead to alternate fuels, drugs, and other products. The research is so promising, in fact, that Venter’s institute recently inked a $300 million contract with Exxon Mobil.
It may sound like the stuff of science fiction. But Venter is no mad scientist in a rumpled lab coat. He welcomes visitors to his sleek office in La Jolla, wearing jeans and a blue shirt, fixing them with his piercing sky blue eyes. A soft, cinnamon-colored puppy, aptly named Darwin, pads about the office where a model of the late icon’s research ship, the HMS Beagle, is prominently displayed.
Nearly a century and a half later, Venter’s own research ship has come in. A 95-foot sloop called the Sorcerer circumnavigates the globe, taking water samples and discovering new forms of life — not sea serpents, but microbes. “Combining sailing with science is certainly one way to make it [science education] fun,” Venter says. “Just making discoveries that other people haven’t done is a real thrill. It goes beyond what most people do in their lives.”
Venter’s success might seem ironic for a man who didn’t much like school as a boy growing up in Northern California. In fact, his eighth grade report card, reprinted in his book, A Life Decoded, has quite a few Cs and Ds. His interest in science began much later, as a hospital corpsman in Vietnam. Upon his return to the states, Venter planned to pursue medicine until he was introduced to “high-end scientists at UCSD with some world famous biochemists.” He made some early discoveries that proved to be profound. “It was such thrill,” he recalls, “that I haven’t looked back.”
The Venter Institute, with facilities in Rockville, Maryland, and La Jolla, is now training the next generation of teachers and students. The institute’s “Discover Genomics!” Mobile lab is giving middle school students in the Washington, D.C./ Baltimore area the chance to make scientific discoveries first hand. “They solve CSI-like crime scenes with DNA, and it’s their first exposure, usually, to any lab science at all,” says Venter, who is looking for donors to launch a similar lab on wheels, which he says is “desperately” needed here in San Diego. “One bus can’t change the education system,” he says. “You need to get more things like this, and genomic science is such a new science. If you don’t expose, particularly young girls and minorities before they’re in high school, the chances are they won’t get converted after high school.”
In his own life, Venter has garnered criticism as well as accolades. He’s been called arrogant and audacious, brilliant and controversial, a genius and an egoist (he sequenced his own DNA), manic and a maverick. “I think anybody who pushes limits in any field could fit that [maverick] description,” says Venter. “I think it’s a shame what I do is not more conventional. It’s not because I’m doing anything that’s radical as much as science moves way too slowly.”
Venter is spending less time at his Arlington, Virginia home these days, and more time at
his 5,000-square-foot house in La Jolla overlooking the Pacific where he married publicist Heather Kowalski more than a year ago. This 63-year-old boy also has quite a few toys: a solar-powered Tesla, Aston Martin, Harley and BMW motorcycles, surfboards, and kayaks. But at an age when most people are looking to retirement, Venter shows no signs of kicking back.
So what does a man, who’s made pioneering discoveries, won a slew of prestigious awards, been published widely, and sailed the world do for an encore? “People keep asking that at every stage. I guess the theory is you win the Olympics, then retire, right?” Venter asks rhetorically. “That’s the thing about science. It’s lifelong learning.” ANDREANAVERSEN