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For McPherson, Time For Change: Baylor Beckons

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Call it the eight-year itch. John McPherson, former mapping guru at Washington University’s Genome Sequencing Center, moved this summer to Baylor College of Medicine, where he’ll be an associate professor in the molecular and human genetics department, with a joint appointment in Baylor’s genome center. After seven and a half years at WashU, he says, “It was time for a change.”

McPherson, a Canada native who moved around often as he grew up because of his father’s military job, had his longest stint anywhere at the University of California, Irvine, where he spent eight years. He’d been working on a positional cloning project and set up one of the smaller genome centers at the school. “I actually was a student in the very first sequencing course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,” McPherson says. “That’s where I met Rick Wilson and Richard Gibbs and Dick McCombie.” In the mid-’90s, Wilson asked McPherson to give a talk at WashU. By that point, McPherson had finally gotten a faculty position at Irvine, but he was ready for a change of scenery — and WashU appealed. “The timing was just right,” he says.

So in 1995 McPherson headed to the Midwest to “help build maps to sequence the human genome.” He set up a group to provide clones. “We walked down the chromosome, building local maps,” he says. “We’d pass those off to the library core facility.” It came to about a megabase a week, or roughly 10 clones. Within a year, though, the library was hungry for 400 clones a week.

“We couldn’t keep up that pace. We had to just go to the whole-genome approach,” McPherson says. He and Marco Marra established a group that fingerprinted BACs for the whole genome; that let him keep up with the demands of WashU and of Whitehead, which McPherson’s group also provided with clones.

Now 43, McPherson helped author the white paper that got the chicken on the priority genome list, but he felt his work “was getting more and more removed from human.” He had started out with the genome project trying to figure out human disease, and finally decided it was time to “get back to what I really was after in the first place.”

Baylor’s focus on human disease drew McPherson in. “I knew some of the people here already,” he says, and the large, affiliate hospital was quite a lure. “I’m looking from the human disease point of view, more in the line of proteomics and bioinformatics,” he says of the work he plans to do there.

— Meredith Salisbury

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