Gene Myers is on his way through West Virginia, apologizing from time to time for the intermittent cell phone reception on his cross-country drive, but mainly concentrating on his new job as a full tenured professor in the department of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.
For Myers, 49, the drive is as much a part of the transition as his many interviews with various university committees. “It’s become a ritual to drive to the next place,” he says, recalling his last such drive four years ago when he headed from the University of Arizona to Celera in Rockville, Md. “It just gives me a chance to think about what happened, and what I want to do in the new place. It’s a kind of meditation.” He travels light — “a couple of pillows, some boxes of books, and some suitcases,” he says. That, and one luxury item: his precious G4 with the $3,000 flat-screen monitor he indulged in.
He’ll have plenty of time to meditate during the 10-day excursion — five days for driving, five for visiting family and friends along the way: in Kansas City and Santa Fe, among other stops.
Myers’ announcement that he was leaving Celera — though he will remain a part-time advisor to Applied Biosystems — came late last fall. The former die-hard academic, who spent 18 years in Tucson before moving to the DC area (“I thought I was going to retire there,” he recalls), says the private-sector experience was definitely worth it. “I had the typical academic’s view of the commercial world,” he recalls. “I don’t have that anymore. I have much more respect for what goes on.”
Still, the lure of the academic world didn’t diminish. During one of his visits to California for interviews, “I went and had coffee in one of the cafés before class. I can’t tell you how wonderful that was: it was like, kids, school, university. I love this.”
Myers, who anticipates his appointment stretching over into the biology department as well, says he’s going to Berkeley “to decode the cell. I think we’re truly on the precipice at this point of being able to get a complete picture of cells as machines.” But the tools lag behind what science dreams of: “It won’t happen with the current technologies,” he says. He’ll work with the Center for Integrative Genomics and the nearby Joint Genome Institute, as well as set up his own research group and, with any luck, his own lab.
The return to academia ends “the clear mission” of Celera — to implement whole-genome shotgun sequencing and sequence the human genome. “It was all very clear where we were going,” he says. “Scientifically, I don’t think it’s as clear anymore. I know what the goal is, but I don’t see the path.”
One of Myers’ goals is to start a lab where “confirmation of in silico predictions” is a natural part of the scientific process. “If you stop at the in silico prediction, you’re not going all the way. You have to go all the way,” he says.
And his interlude with the private sector? No regrets, except “it would’ve been nice to have made a little money,” he says. “The market crashed too soon.” And while he can’t wait to get back to the university setting, don’t count Myers out of the commercial side forever. “You may see me in a suit again,” he says. “But not for a while.”
— Meredith Salisbury