John Aitchison is a man of many talents.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a professional sailor, but that seemed crazy — and it probably was,” he told GeekWire. “So I went to university to find another, hopefully more productive, passion.”
And boy, was he successful. Aitchison found a passion for biotechnology and went on to be a founding member of the Institute for Systems Biology, where his research on the tiny structures that make up cells has helped us understand how diseases work.
He later moved to the Center for Infectious Disease Research, and on Thursday he was appointed the Center’s new president. Today, we’re giving him an even more prestigious title: GeekWire’s Geek of the Week.
Aitchison said the wonder he feels when he discovers something new is what really drives his work.
“It was transformational for me,” Aitchison said of his first discovery as a student. “I remember looking at my results and realizing that I was the only person in the world that had ever made the observation. I had made an original discovery, and it had implications for people with the disease I was studying. Wow. I was hooked.”
“Today, what drives me is that same sense of discovery that got me hooked on day one, and knowing that the discoveries we make today will lead to future cures. That is a good place to live,” he said.
But, of course, he still enjoys sailing when he has the chance.
Read more about our Geek of the Week, John Aitchison:
What do you do, and why do you do it? “Every day I wake up and go to work hoping to recapture the feeling of excitement I had when I made my first discovery as an undergrad working in a research lab in Canada. Combine that with the promise that such discoveries can lead to cures for millions of people who suffer from infectious (or other) diseases, and that’s a compelling reason to go to work. I admit that as the president of the Center for Infectious Disease Research, I don’t personally make those discoveries very often anymore. However, now I am in the enviable position of working with many creative and dedicated scientists and trying to ensure that the environment is ideal for their discoveries. I believe that this means working at the cutting edge of technologies, focusing the research on important problems, and encouraging collaboration across disciplines that are normally siloed, so that the best minds and orthogonal perspectives can stimulate the most creative and incisive thinking and approaches.”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Today biology is undergoing a renaissance. Previous generations of biologists focused on breaking down biological systems to their component parts and studying them in isolation. This is termed “reductionist biology.” Today, with new tools, technologies, and frankly, a new mindset inspired by the mapping of the human genome — combined with the incredible computational power we have today — we can study complex biological systems as they function. This is the basis of what is called ‘systems biology.’ It enables us to begin to understand the complex interplay of molecules, the dance of which is life. Systems biology also allows us to predict and control biological behaviors including those conditions that lead to disease or contribute to wellness.
“We are focusing this incredible power on the most challenging of infectious diseases that threaten humanity. Diseases like malaria and TB have been around for thousands of years and kill millions of people annually. They have evolved remarkable strategies to evade and control our immune systems. As a consequence, vaccines have been elusive. Systems biology allows us to make discoveries about malaria, TB, and many other infectious diseases that reductionist approaches simply can’t. These discoveries will lead to the breakthroughs that in turn will lead to the much needed treatments and cures. The good news is that we’re closer than ever before in history, as long as we can maintain funding for critical advances through the NIH, private foundations and individuals.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “A lot of people look to the stars and ponder the vastness of the universe, but I’m fascinated by thinking about the inner workings of cells and the millions of molecules that operate within and between them. I try to understand how a cell fights a pathogen, how a pathogen fights a cell and how the immune system has a memory of these fights so they’re prepared the next time there’s an intruder. And it’s all just biochemistry. It’s really effing amazing.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “It has to be my smart phone. I do everything on it — from email, to coaxing me to sleep at night, to marine navigation. Sometimes I even use it to talk to people. Thanks Alexander — who’d of thunk it!?”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I like to see everything out. When something goes away in a filing cabinet, it’s gone forever as far as I’m concerned.”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “The key is to exercise, but there are too many times I don’t do it. But every day that I fit it in is a better day. Working out around lunchtime is ideal, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows. I like to have a right-click button.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “I really loved Captain Kirk — who’s Janeway?”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “I think the Cloak is creepy and I think if I had access to a time machine I would screw things up badly. So I’d choose the transporter. I’d like to hop around in the time we’re living in. There’s a lot to learn here and now.”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “I would talk to my kids. They are much smarter than me, and it is their future. I’m sure they would know how to invest it wisely for the future of humanity.”
I once waited in line for … “I hate lines.”
Your role models: “I look at elements I want to emulate from a lot of different people I admire, like Lee Hood’s determined optimism, Guenter Blobel’s love of science. My Ph.D. supervisor — in whose lab I made my first discovery — is someone I still admire for his passion for research and discovery. I also think about friends who have passed away and the love of life they had, which gives me a real sense of perspective about what matters.”
Greatest game in history: “Hockey. I used to play it, and it’s tough. There’s nothing harder than standing in front of the net and trying to stand your ground.”
Best gadget ever: “A GPS, that’s phenomenal.”
First computer: “I wrote my thesis on a Commodore 64. It was just like a typewriter; any mistake you made, you couldn’t ‘Ctl+Z’ it.”
Current phone: “iPhone.”
Favorite app: “MarineTraffic. You can watch ships leave Seattle and see where they go all over the world.”
Favorite cause: “I cannot understand why, in this country, we have to defend scientific evidence!! It’s frustrating and scary. Since when does someone’s beliefs or convictions counter overwhelming scientific evidence? This must change; human potential is so exciting and hopeful, and our survival depends on science. Advocate for and support science.”
Most important technology of 2016: “CRISPR genome editing technologies — I started in a genetic engineering program 30 years ago, but the technologies all seem so imprecise and clunky compared to the elegance of CRISPR. It enables gene hacking — reprogramming of cells with such precision and fidelity that it can be used to engineer immune cells to fight cancers and to correct genetic abnormalities. Certainly, there are safety (and ethical) concerns that need to be addressed, but the potential is huge.”
Most important technology of 2018: “Technologies are moving at such a pace that I hesitate to guess — but in my field, systems biology approaches use technology at the single cell level to understand this fundamental unit of life. It’s a critical direction that is going to transform all of biological research. To quote Albert Claude, Nobel Laureate, 1974, ‘Man, like other organisms, is so perfectly coordinated that he may easily forget, whether awake or asleep, that he is a colony of cells in action, and that it is the cells which achieve, through him, what he has the illusion of accomplishing himself.'”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Geeks like me are privileged to be able to work as scientists in an effort to cure diseases. But scientists can’t end diseases on their own. We need to share our message of hope for cures, and for transformational advances that will better millions of lives. Solving the mysteries of infectious diseases will save lives and ease the suffering of millions, but it will also lead to more stable societies and stronger economies across the globe. With that kind of impact, we should all be advocating for science.”
Linkedin: John Aitchison