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Black Belt of Bioautomation

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Skip Garner is no die-hard academic — his biomedical lab churns out technology and measures success in cash

By John Carroll

 

It’s not easy making 3,000 margaritas a day.

But on a whim, Harold — better known as Skip — Garner took one of the robots he’d developed in his lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas and knocked back enough test samples to prove that he could do just that.

For an innovative instrumentation expert like Garner, who specializes in computational biology at UTSW’s human genome center, it’s all part of mixing in a little fun with the long hours of working with advanced sequencing technology.

Now 48, Garner helped create the genome center 11 years ago when he and Glen Evans at the Salk Institute won a $14 million grant from NIH to dive into mapping and sequencing work. Their NIH-funded team transferred to UTSW, with Garner spawning new technology to enhance high-throughput DNA mapping and sequencing.

Garner’s academic pedigree includes a lineup of current positions: professor of biochemistry and internal medicine, member of the human genome center, and founding member of the Center for Biomedical Inventions.

But for all his academic achievements, real success for Garner is ultimately measured by the dollar value of what he and his researchers create. The biomedical center takes an unabashedly commercial approach to its work, looking to create spinoffs and university revenue. That’s music to the ears of Garner, an unapologetic capitalist and born-again Texan.

“My group develops technology,” says the bearded, graying Garner. “It’s more convincing when it turns into something for everybody to exploit.”

“He’s a real forward-thinking guy,” says Jeff Scheumack, president of Bioautomation in Plano, Texas. Scheumack, who sells some of the robotics products Garner created, says the scientist is keenly aware of the commercial value of what he’s working on — and of the tight timeframe for getting things to market before something better comes along.

Recently Garner’s been working with digital light processing chips developed by nearby Texas Instruments, which use a million tiny micromirrors on each chip to exponentially increase the number of genetic experiments he can compute each day.

“We use that chip and … project ultraviolet light instead of regular light,” says Garner as he leans back in his office chair. “This allows us, under computer control, to create patterns of light on a piece of glass and synchronously introduce the right DNA chemical to build up a chip that has a custom set of 200,000 [spots] on a square inch. So suddenly in my lab we can make four chips a day, 200,000 a chip. We have to have supercomputers to design 800,000 genetic experiments a day. We have to have supercomputers to analyze 800,000 genetic experiments a day.”

He has no shortage of compute power. An inventory of Garner’s hardware covers 120 computers, including some Hewlett-Packard servers with more than 110 GB of disk space, a 32 CPU Linux cluster, and a three-terabyte storage system. But the hardware isn’t nearly as valuable as the mental inventory at UTSW: dozens of top scientists working with Garner’s computational crew in the hunt for new genomics breakthroughs.

“All this stuff, computer things and the rest of this technology,” says Garner with an all-encompassing wave, “is useless without a purpose.”

Fantastic Place

Lack of purpose has never been a problem for Garner. The tall, lanky scientist entered the academic world after 12 years working in the research arm of General Atomics. A turning point came in 1990, when a friend suggested he follow up on his budding interest in genomics by looking up Evans.

“The next Monday I took my bicycle and rode across from General Atomics to Salk and went in and introduced myself to Glen,” he recalls. Evans had one simple question for Garner: What the hell good are you?

“So I said I can build instruments, I can do software, and I don’t need any money. And he thought it was great.” That began a close working relationship that lasted several years. But it was only later — after Evans left UTSW — that Garner felt everything click in his research world.

“I suddenly rediscovered the fact that I was in a fantastic place” — with bioinformaticists, a trove of phenotypes, and experts in biology and medicine. “We were now wanted and could now be appreciated by other collaborators,” Garner says. His collaborative focus is on directed searches, looking for polymorphisms.

“It’s a very complementary kind of arrangement,” says Ron Butow, a molecular biologist at UTSW. “Skip, being a trained physicist, brings a totally different perspective than us biologists.” He’s also accessible, a wiz at instrumentation technology and knowledgeable about biology. Adds Butow: “That’s very unique.”

Part Bond, Part Bayou

On Garner’s office door hangs a paper target, the bull’s eye area in the middle shredded by a series of direct hits.

“Pretty good, don’t you think?” asks Garner, later pointing to a picture of himself cradling a .22 semiautomatic target pistol with the barrel pointed straight up, 007 style.

Garner is no ivory tower academic. He grew up in the Louisiana bayous, the “hybrid son” of a mechanic father and artist mother. And when his doctoral training in nuclear engineering and computer science at the University of Wisconsin was done, he grabbed the one position that would let him travel internationally, refining his karate skills in Japan.

Now a black belt, scuba diving enthusiast, and amateur artist — he likes to show visitors one piece inspired by the curving shape of DNA — Garner has always enjoyed juggling private passions with research.

But the research always came first. He went to General Atomics after his PhD, devoting his first few years of research to fusion. The last six years there was spent with an internal think tank, and he ran a lab and operated a spinoff company commercializing some of his inventions.

But suddenly, the “genome bug” bit.

Holy Grail

The genome bug has been a big part of his life ever since — the central motivation behind routine 80-hour weeks. But “then there’s the wild stuff,” says Garner as he’s totting up the work being done by himself and 25 scientists in his wing.

“As a college professor and a physicist I can work on whatever the hell I want,” he says with a laugh. And that’s one way that life stays fun. “Work here is really going to be coming up with wild new ideas. A lot will be in the computational area. In instrumentation, I think we’ll continue to exploit the things we’ve already laid the foundation for. But it’s hard to figure out what we’re going to do next.”

Maybe it’s proteomics. “The final product is a coherent model of how everything interplays,” Garner says. “And there’s the Holy Grail.”

 

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