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Lessons from a Legend

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Ari Patrinos began as a mechanical and electrical engineer, never imagining that one day he'd rise to be the leader of the US Department of Energy's involvement in the Human Genome Project and, later, its Genomes to Life initiative. Patrinos has worked in national labs including Brookhaven and Oak Ridge, the government at DOE, academia by way of the University of Rochester, and is currently at a biotech startup -- Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics, where Patrinos serves as president.

That's a range few people get to experience, and it gives him a perspective that's especially valuable to scientists in this field. In his interview with Genome Technology, Patrinos talks about the pros and cons of each setting, how to get into systems biology when you didn't start out as a biologist, and more. What follows are excerpts of the conversation, edited only for length.

Genome Technology: Let's begin with an overview of your career. How did you get started?

Ari Patrinos: Actually, my background is engineering. I started very much into the physical sciences, with an undergraduate degree in mechanical and electrical engineering from the National Technical University in Athens. Then I came to the US for graduate studies and went to Northwestern, where I got a PhD in mechanical engineering and astronautical sciences.

It is true that both in my undergraduate and graduate years, even though I benefited tremendously and I was in many ways rewarded by my involvement in the physical sciences and especially engineering, my true inclinations were more in the environmental, ecological, and biological sciences. In the ‘70s, environmental and biological sciences were not as rigorous as they should have been. My first interests really were more on the ecological and biological side but I was appalled when I took some courses — both undergraduate and graduate -- in the biological sciences and the environmental sciences by how non-rigorous those fields were.

Even while I was doing graduate studies, my thesis was in fact a computational study of an atmospheric phenomenon. Shortly after that when I taught for a couple of years at the University of Rochester, the first days of research that I delved into were frankly medical applications [including] ecological studies [and] environmental chemistry studies. When I moved to the national laboratory system I moved almost entirely to the environmental and biological sciences. When I came to DOE I came as somebody who helped launch the climate change research program.

GT: What advice would you give people who are not biologists but are interested in this field?

Patrinos: There has been a marked increase of physical scientists who have made the transition. Your question is very relevant and I've watched this happen over the last 10 years -- I can tell you what works and what doesn't work.

The one thing that has to be understood by the folks in the physical sciences that want to make the transition to modern biology is not to be arrogant -- which is frankly often the case for physicists, because their culture has been if you're the smartest you can be, you become a physicist, and if you're a good physicist you can do practically everything else. In some ways I had that same arrogance myself. If you've sort of ruled the roost for a century, which is what physicists have had, that is a fairly understandable mistake. A physical scientist that wants to make the transition, the first thing that has to happen is they have to shed the arrogance if they have it.

Related to this is the fact that biology is much harder. I'm not sounding arrogant on the other side; the reality is biology is a lot harder than physics. Living things are by their own nature much more complicated [than inanimate ones]. If you just focus on the individual cell, for example, and the original ideas we had about it, the more we dig into this the more we find out how incredibly complex the system is. Biology is much, much harder in terms of understanding it, modeling it, predicting its behavior.

The third [thing is] the ever-increasing importance of the computational science -- by that I include both computational biology as well as bioinformatics. At this time the biology is competing with the most rigorous of the physical sciences in terms of access to the big supercomputers; the most powerful supercomputers are stretched to the limit in terms of their ability to do the job. Now a biologist can be a very prominent biologist, a very successful biologist, without ever getting a finger wet, doing all these wonderful things in silico.

Lesson number four: the biological revolution was enabled by a number of things, but one of them has been the successful transfer and adoption of physical science tools by the pioneer biologists or the pioneer biochemists. One example is structural biology. [For instance, with light sources or synchrotrons,] these powerful X-ray machines were used to look into matter. Now, 50 percent of all the users are biologists. These users are now sophisticated; they understand these systems.

GT: You've worked in academia, national labs, government, and now a company. What are the main differences across those?

Patrinos: I think each and every one of those experiences has its positives and negatives. I can't comment on the private-sector one because I'm only nine months into it and I still don't have a clue of what I'm doing.

My involvement in academia was brief. I certainly enjoyed very much the teaching aspect but I was frustrated by the smallness of the research. I don't mean to put that down, because it's really that small science, and not in a derogatory sense, that generates the great number of brilliant scientists that we have. Not everybody is made to be part of a very large team or work on a very large project -- heaven forbid if we all end up that way. I think we're going to be much poorer if that's the case. But it wasn't for me.

I liked very much the interaction, the large teaming. I like to see large teams come together and solve fairly complicated problems by applying many disciplines. I always liked the interdisciplinary nature of the science and that was difficult to do in a university. In a [national] laboratory it was easier to do, and that's one of the reasons I stayed there longer.

Government by itself was to me very rewarding. A lot of people have complained about government and bureaucracy and the vagaries of the occasional political masters that can swing you one way or another. And it is true, but I was certainly very lucky in my government career — and regardless of who was in control on the Hill or in the White House, I was very successful in convincing the ones that I had to deal with of the value of research. My trajectory within the government was one that was extremely rewarding [and] I had the privilege of working with wonderful people.

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