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Perennial Programmer in the Spotlight


The garden that Jim Kent enjoyed tending is overgrown with weeds. All for a good cause, though: the 41-year-old PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz diverted the time to write GigAssembler, the computer program used by the public side to assemble its draft genome sequence.

But Kent didn’t start out on this path. Just about five years ago, he was a “programmer making tools for people to make animation with,” he recalls. With the introduction of Windows 95, he realized he was tired of keeping up with the continual changes to operating systems. “So I studied biology,” he says.

Most interested in gene expression and splicing, he did some work with the nematode before getting pulled in by David Haussler to work on gene predictions and annotations on the human genome. “It became clear pretty quickly that to do annotations we’d have to do some assembly,” Kent says.

By mid-May 2000, researchers were growing increasingly worried that the assembly wouldn’t be ready in time for the planned June 25 White House press conference. Kent decided to write his own program, and so began a month’s worth of 80-hour weeks as he raced to complete the application in time.

The work paid off. And after the success of GigAssembler, Kent created a browser to further genomics studies. By the time the genome paper publication rolled around, members of the public project were freely dropping his name in presentations and chats, and he was profiled in the New York Times.

But the Hawaiian-born father of two girls, 8 and 10, remains unfazed. “I’m about as famous as I want to be at this point,” he laughs. “I don’t have to wear sunglasses when I go outside.” Future plans for the student celeb? Finish his PhD, for one, which could take two months or three years, depending on the direction he chooses. “Not to be too geeky,” he says, “but it’s really the research that’s most important to me.”

One thing that is certain for Kent, who could probably write his own ticket in the private sector: “I’m pretty set at this point on staying in the academic, nonprofit, research domain.” Do we hear Francis Collins chortling?

— Meredith Salisbury

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