Biological Sciences

Proving Skeptics Wrong: An Evening With Biotech's Best

Andrea Armani, Marvin Caruthers, and Leroy Hood spoke at the University of Southern California about dealing with resistance and failure in scientific pursuits.

Some of the greatest biotech innovations were simply considered a waste of time in the early stages of research and development.

Before he was credited with DNA synthesis, Dr. Marvin Caruthers faced countless skeptics that saw little value in his research. It’s a challenge many on the cutting edge know well. 

“It’s not as though the whole world of biology and biochemistry were waiting around on the edge of their chairs for us to develop a method for synthesizing DNA."

“You’re out there doing what you know is important despite the fact that the general science community really thinks what you’re doing is kind of dumb and really not important at all.”

The National Science & Technology Medals Foundation recently hosted medal laureates Caruthers and Dr. Leroy “Lee” Hood, along with cancer researcher Dr. Andrea Armani and Dr. Andrea Belz, an expert in turning innovation into profit. The panel of biotech influencers discussed how they became the powerhouses of innovation they are today at “An Evening with Biotech’s Best,” at The University of Southern California.

“It’s not as though the whole world of biology and biochemistry were waiting around on the edge of their chairs for us to develop a method for synthesizing DNA,” Caruthers said. “As a matter of fact, most people in the biological sciences couldn’t care less.”

Caruthers recalled what a member of the National Academy of Science once told him over a beer after he presented his plans for reinventing the way DNA is synthesized. 

“He said ‘Marvin, why the hell do you want to learn how to synthesize DNA? Yeah, (biochemist Har Gobind) Khorana used it to solve the genetic code, and now he’s made a gene, but what else are you going to do with it? Why don’t you try to go off and do something more interesting?’” Caruthers said. “That was not unusual. That’s how it was in those days. Nobody cared … about these kinds of approaches.”

Caruthers saw room for improvement in DNA synthesis, which took months to process. He pushed on and eventually his method cut the process down to a matter of hours. His work led to the development of “gene machines” that provide synthetic DNA used in countless areas of biotech research today. It earned him the 2006 National Medal of Science.

Hood faced similar resistance before he earned the 2011 National Medal of Science for his work bridging biology and engineering. Hood’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant proposal for a sequencer was written off as “impossible” — work that ultimately led to the Human Genome Project.

“I sent my first grant (proposal) on the sequencer into to NIH and got the worst priority scores I ever got,” Hood said.

“I remember (molecular biologist) Jim Watson and I were talking, and Jim said to me ‘Lee, why are wasting all of society’s money on this DNA sequencer?’” he recalled. 

Hood was determined to prove his skeptics wrong and got creative about how to fund his project.

“I actually went to a foundation and went to a company and persuaded each to put $200,000 in,” he said. “We had enough money to develop the prototype, prove it worked. Once you’ve proven something to NIH, they’ll fund it.”

Armani noted that resistance and failure are not necessarily a bad thing in science, especially when they fuel researchers to hone their ideas. Armani is the Ray Irani chairwoman of Engineering and Materials Science at USC and developing new approaches to treating cancer through innovative diagnostic instruments.

Resistance and failure are not necessarily a bad thing in science, especially when they fuel researchers to hone their ideas.

“You can look at a failure as a wasted opportunity, but in every failure, there is some lesson you can glean from it,” she said. “It shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a negative. It should be viewed as a stepping stone toward your success. You just need to figure out what that next step is.”

At best, only 20 percent of a researcher’s ideas are successful, according to Caruthers. 

“You’ve got to be prepared to expect that something doesn’t work,” he said.

“You have to be a little bit stubborn sometimes and think you know what you’re doing. Eventually, some of your ideas actually work,” he added. 

The panel noted their education was essential to being able to pursue their passions and have the flexibility to continue research others disregarded.

“A Ph.D. gives you access to a position where you can control your own fate in a way that is very difficult to do at a lower level,” Hood said. “The exception to that is if you are really good in hacking you can go into engineering and you can be a non-Ph.D., and you can do quite well. In the more conventional sciences — chemistry, biology, medicine — you want to be a position where you can make a difference.”

Belz pushed back, noting even in computational sciences “a Ph.D. is still the right way to go” to ensure a researcher can purse “the most interesting algorithms” and projects. Belz is vice dean for Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship at USC.

“You can get very far as an advanced programmer, but my own huge bias is that if you want to be on the cutting edge you’d better know your field top to bottom before you go in and think you’re going to make history,” she said.

The innovators also noted there are somethings young researchers won’t be able to learn in the classroom. The panel agreed networking and leadership skills are key to developing successful, groundbreaking projects.

“When I was a graduate student we used to say the extroverts were the ones looking at someone else’s shoes,” Belz said. “For scientists and engineers, networking doesn’t always come super naturally. It is probably one of the most important skills you can develop in advancing your career. It’s just as important as understanding what problems to work on and learning how to be stubborn.”

While leadership isn’t part of a scientific curriculum, Caruthers said the skill is invaluable in attracting qualified and enthusiastic peers and students to help pursue a scientific goal. 

“There is as much good leadership there as there is good science,” Caruthers said.

“You have to network, and you have to have the right people who will be spokespeople for you,” he added.

Armani said when a researcher is surrounded by the right people it creates a “feedback mechanism” of enthusiasm propelling good work.

“Everyday something new will be discovered,” she said. “Maybe it will be a baby step, but maybe it will be a gigantic leap — you never know.”

This event is part of our "An Evening With" program. To learn about upcoming events, click here