November 2010

Bracing for the Revolution: The Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke University

When Huntington F. Willard was an undergraduate at Harvard University, reading "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis helped put the science he was learning into the bigger context of what it meant to be a scientist.

Willard, who moved to Duke in 2003 as the founding director of the institute, recalls an unusual moment back in his undergraduate days at Harvard in the early 1970s that set the tone for his future career. He was taking the biochemistry class that originally had been developed by James Watson. It was the usual hard slog for both premeds and pre-science majors, but what was unusual was that halfway through the semester, they suddenly stopped learning just hard-core science and instead read two novels: “The Double Helix” by Watson and “Arrowsmith” by Sinclair Lewis (about the life’s journey of an up-and-coming scientist).

“It took me for a loop at first, but later, it really helped me put the science I was learning in the bigger context of what it meant to be a scientist, both in the world of science and in the world of society,” he says. He kept that broader view throughout his career, as perhaps unconsciously reflected on his office shelves by a host of books on scientific ethics and philosophy that he has read over the years.

Therefore, he immediately was intrigued when he was approached by Duke almost nine years ago to head its new and unique vision for an interdisciplinary campus-wide institute that would bridge science and society.

“They basically gave me a blank piece of paper to work with and a license to be a bit schizophrenic, going back and forth between these two worlds,” he says, “and I went for it.”

And today, the IGSP has grown to include nearly 100 affiliated faculty members across the university, spanning virtually every sector of the campus. In addition to individuals in various science, engineering and medical departments, the IGSP boasts members from the departments of African and African American studies, philosophy, English and mathematics as well as the schools of business, law and public policy. This extremely diverse group works together under a tri-fold mission: to uncover the biology and evolution of our genome, to reflect on its meaning for individuals and to push that knowledge to the front steps of both medicine and social policy.

It’s a steady climb that can be attributed to both nature and nurture.

Part of the ability for the IGSP to work, Willard notes, lies in Duke’s DNA. It’s a nationally and internationally known academic institution that has a strong academic reputation in multiple schools like arts and sciences, medicine, law and business, all nicely contained within a fairly compact campus where different disciplines spill over freely. “You have to look pretty hard to find boundaries here,” Willard says.

At the same time, Willard has been instrumental in bringing the right personalities along for the ride for the past several years, whether they were pre-existing faculty or new hires.

“Sometimes, I’ve had to be blunt to prospective faculty,” he says. “They had great credentials and skills but also had that tunnel vision about their own research, which wasn’t the kind of personality we look for at IGSP. So, I’d tell them that I knew they would succeed in their career; it just wouldn’t be here.”

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