While he is celebrated around the globe as a top geneticist, Robert Hugh Waterston is anything but a lone scientist. Rather, he is a preeminent collaborator and a man widely known for sharing information.
He sees cooperation among researchers as essential. "Basically, it's the way science advances," he said. By way of an example of how to slow scientific progress, he offered the long-delayed impact of Gregor Mendel's groundbreaking discoveries in heredity - Mendel didn't publish.
Not only does Waterston publish, he is a pioneer in using the internet and other technology to distribute information to the largest possible scientific audience. Moreover, he has chosen to pursue research based in part on its cooperative potential.
In the 1980s he began working with John Sulston on sequencing the C. elegans genome. "The reason we undertook the project is that we knew it would enable everybody's work, including our own," Waterston said. The project involved teams of scientists at the Sanger Centre in England, where Sulston was director, and at the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, where Waterston was director. He said the teams "put out information as we got it" even when it was still fragmentary.
His contribution to "getting the worm genome up and running" was probably his most important achievement so far, Waterston said. It was a first, and it pointed the way to other large-scale sequencing efforts, including the human genome project.
While Waterston is famed as a researcher, he started his career as a medical practitioner. Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1943, he received his bachelor's degree from Princeton University and his Ph.D. and his M.D. from the University of Chicago.
It was his intention to practice medicine, he said, although "I knew that I wanted to do some sort of academic medicine from the start." As his education advanced, "I got increasingly interested in the research side" – so much so that at one point he considered dropping out of medical school. He was persuaded to complete his degree and spent a year as an intern in pediatric medicine at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston.
"It was a hard choice" between practicing medicine and doing research, but he finally decided that trying to do both would mean "I'd be half as good in each."
In 1976, he began a long association with Washington University in St. Louis. Over the years he was an assistant professor/then professor in anatomy and neurobiology and in genetics. He spent a year as sabbatical visitor in Cambridge at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. From 1993 until 2002 he was the James S. McDonnell Professor and Chairman of Genetics as well as the Director of the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine.
In 2002 he became the William H. Gates III Endowed Chair in Biomedical Sciences and Chairman of the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle.
"One of the reasons I moved was to take a fresh start," he said. "The challenge was no longer in getting the sequence; it was in making sense of it."
In the last few years, he has turned his attention to finding out "how the instruction set ends up being a worm" or, on a more complex scale, a human. The C. elegans is a handy tool because its genes can be manipulated and results are evident in a three-day life period. For human study, "evolution has created an enormous resource" for tracking gene variations through naturally occurring mutations. Computer analysis is key to the research. "The technology . . . continues to advance," he said, and he envisions a day when it will provide virtually all the answers, but "that's a ways in the future."
Already a long list of awards and honors have highlighted Waterston's career, among them the Beadle Medal, Genetics Society of America; the Dan David Prize, Dan David Foundation; the Gairdner Award, the Gairdner Foundation; the Alfred P. Sloan Award, the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation; the American Heart Association Established Investigator Award; the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship; the American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellowship and the Muscular Dystrophy Association Postdoctoral Fellowship.
He has served with a number of organizations and committees, including the National Academies Committee on Intellectual Property in Genomic and Protein Research and Innovation, the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health, and as liaison to the National Cancer Policy Board for the Council of the Institute of Medicine.
In his free time he enjoys gardening, reading and the theater, and confesses to being a longtime "sports junkie." He is married to Patricia Waterston and has three daughters, Adrienne, Liz and Rachel, two granddaughters, Emily and Nicole, a grandson, Max, and a nephew, James, whom they have raised.
See video clip from Science/AAAS Breakthrough of the Year 2005: Evolution in Action