Geneticist George Church ’72 Sought Independence at PA

“Everything sparked when I came to Andover,” said George Church ’72. A molecular geneticist and contributor to both the Human and Personal Genome Projects, Church said that his time spent at Andover was a period of transformation and evolution. Growing up in Florida, Church’s peers were not a source of educational or scientific inspiration. “In Florida, all the peer reinforcement was for not doing your studies, and I essentially hung out with hoodlums and people who were older than me. It was a very non-academic environment,” he said. Church’s interest in biology stemmed from his father’s work as a physician. “[My father] had this giant physician’s bag for making house calls,” said Church. “I would look in this bag and there would be all these amazingly complicated medicines and instruments for measuring heart rate and checking reflexes. There wasn’t really any way that I could pursue this interest independently in Florida.” Church arrived at Andover in 1968 seeking personal and educational independence. He characterized his four-year career at PA as a “time of questioning the status quo.” “I was already primed to do so since I passed through a huge cultural shift from Florida to Massachusetts, and from a group of friends who did not plan to finish high school to a group who planned to run the world,” said Church. As a Junior, Church lived in Williams Hall, a dorm that touched the fields of the Abbot School campus. Phillips Academy and Abbot remained separate institutions until 1973, the year after Church’s graduation. Church moved to Johnson Hall as a Lower, and relocated to Taylor Hall in his Upper and Senior years. Having quickly adapted to dorm life and making friends, Church soon began to utilize Andover’s resources and facilities. He began independently conducting experiments in chemistry labs and a greenhouse. Church said, “From day one I was completely involved in science. I did a lot of studies in the greenhouse experimenting with plant hormones. It was all possible because [faculty members] trusted me to work on my own.” “At Andover there were lots of opportunities and I began to develop more independent ideas,” said Church. “I could come in on the weekends alone. Back then allowing a teenager to have free run of the chemistry labs was very trusting.” Church explored computers, in addition to chemistry and biology, during his time at Andover. He said, “We had gotten a hook up to a Dartmouth computer system. In that day and age, this was truly astonishing. This time period was way before the Internet and we had access to time-sharing and a network.” “You could literally type onto this keyboard and it was interactive. It would come back with answers. The computer was a terminal down in the basement of Morse Hall with no manuals or faculty advisors. There was nobody using it. I found it and turned it on,” he continued. Church’s experience with the computer in the basement of Morse characterizes the independence and new opportunities that he was able to take advantage of while at Andover. Despite his self-directed nature, two teachers had a tremendous impact on Church—his math teacher, Crayton Bedford, and his photography teacher, John Snyder. Church recalls how the two truly understood him, recognized his potential and allowed him to study outside of the classroom. “At Andover, teachers tried to single kids out to help them reach their full potential. Crayton Bedford could tell that I was incredibly bored in my math class and offered me a book on linear algebra to do independent study with computer programs,” said Church. He continued “I can’t say that we knew each other extremely well but somehow he knew the core thing about me, which is that I needed to be independent.” After graduating from Andover in 1972, Church attended Duke University and immediately immersed himself in difficult classes and independent study. Church said, “Upon reaching college, I was already so accustomed to working independently that I had a huge advantage over my classmates. I skipped all of the freshman classes and soon discovered a lab that was working on crystallography.” Through his work in crystallography, Church became involved with the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003. The project has identified the 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA and determined the sequences of the chemical base pairs that compose human DNA. Church developed the first direct genomic sequencing method in 1984 and then helped establish the Human Genome Project in 1984. Church remains a prominent contributor in the world of genetics as an initiator in the Personal Genome Project among many other achievements. The Personal Genome Project recruits the help of individuals to contribute their own genomes for further study. By studying these participants’ genomes, the founders of the project can make connections between genomic characteristics and certain diseases. Church is currently Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and MIT.

Apr 17, 2009