Sunday, November 29, 2009

Obama honors class of '70 grad for genome research

John Craig Venter. Photo courtesy of Heather Kowalski/John Craig Venter Institute

J. Craig Venter received the National Medal of Science on Oct. 7, 2009, from President Barack Obama at the White House. Credit: Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation

Sharon Ho and Dylan Slusser
Issue date: 10/26/09

A week before his 63rd birthday, CSM alumnus John Craig Venter received the 2009 National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama on Oct. 7.

Venter was one of nine recipients honored this year with the medal, the highest honor awarded annually to scientists.

The National Science Foundation organizes the award on behalf of the White House.
The award recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering.

Venter graduated from CSM in 1970, and then obtained a bachelor's degree in 1972 and a Ph.D. from UC San Diego in 1975.

Venter is being recognized "for his dedication to the advancement of the science of genomics, his contributions to the understanding of its implications for society, and his commitment to the clear communication of information to the scientific community, the public, and policymakers," according to the NSF.

"It was one of the highest honors of my life and it was even more special receiving it from our president," wrote Venter in an e-mail. "I have tremendous respect for President Obama for many reasons. One of the most important aspects for me as a scientist is that he understands the importance that science brings to society."

He described his experience at CSM as the first time that he was exposed to good teachers and people that took an interest in his education.

While there were many who helped him at CSM, two teachers in particular inspired him and transformed his career and life.

"Two teachers were especially important to me-Bruce Cameron, who was my English teacher and became a life long friend of mine and Kate Murashige who was my chemistry teacher then," wrote Venter.

Murashige, 74, is now a biotechnology patent lawyer and senior partner at Morrison & Foerster law firm in San Diego, and has represented Venter's biotechnology company Synthetic Genomics Inc.

SGI announced on Jul. 14. a $600 million, multi-year research and development agreement with Exxon Mobile Corp. to develop next generation biofuels using photosynthetic algae.

"Venter is clearly one of the most creative, intelligent and productive scientists around," said Murashige in a phone interview. "He is going to make real changes in our lifetimes and obviously deserves the award. More than being proud of him, I admire him."

After graduating from UC San Diego with a Ph.D., Venter first taught at the University of New York in Buffalo before moving to the National Institutes of Health in the early 1980s.

At NIH, he became interested in studying genes and genomes before people were even beginning to talk about sequencing the human genome.

His lab researched and developed new tools and techniques, most notably the use of "expressed sequence tags" which they used to rapidly discover human genes.

"From that moment on we were excited by the notion of sequencing the entire human genome and the genomes of many microbes, plants and mammals because having the full genome of organisms is the only way to fully understand their biology," wrote Venter.

Along with SGI, Venter also founded the J. Craig Venter Institute, a not-for-profit research center in Rockville, Md. and San Diego, Calif.

"I have been fortunate to have teams of hundreds of scientists over the years who have helped me make important discoveries and advances in genomics," wrote Venter. "My field truly is a multidisciplinary team of scientists and computer/computing experts who work together to understand life."

A team led by Venter published the first complete genome of an individual human using Venter's own DNA sequence on May 10, 2007.

Venter is one of two men credited with mapping the human genome, and was listed on Time Magazine's 2007 and 2008 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.

His invention of the first synthetic organism, a bacterium assembled from 582,000 base pairs, was also listed third in Time Magazine's Top 10 Scientific Discoveries of 2008.

Venter has also won this year's Economist Innovation Award for Bioscience. He is due to receive the award at a ceremony at London's Science Museum on Oct. 29.

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