George Church | Multiplex Failures

Posted By on August 23, 2019


[MUSIC PLAYING] You might get the impression
that I like failure. I’m not fond of
failure actually. Many of the people
that are talking here probably were mystified
why they were invited. I had no doubts. I’m quite a success at failure. I am in a book on failure. How many of you can say that? That’s on my CV. My website has a copy of the
letter where I flunked out of graduate school. I mean, not just flunking a
class, but the whole thing. And that will be kind of
the punchline of this. So I’m going to ruin the
punchline by telling you at the beginning what it is. And then I’m going
to ruin it at the end by kind of explaining
how I survived anyway. And I’ll ruin it even
more by saying, you know, almost all of my failures are
really first-world failures. You know, flunking out
of graduate school, I should be grateful that I
was in graduate school at all. I had made it that far. But it takes quite a
bit of effort, I think. I worked really hard at
building up to that failure, and I had a whole bunch
of failures along the way so I could practice,
get good at it. You know, it’s like
they say, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practice. So I practiced, and
so I’ll tell you some of those failures
that led me to– and I wouldn’t even say
this is my biggest failure. This was probably the one
that got me to this stage, was this flunking out of
Duke and putting my letter on my internet site. So anyway, you know, my
failures began when I was born. You can tell this is going
to be a shaggy dog story when someone says that, right? You know, I should have
picked as my song “Alice’s Restaurant.” I think that would have
been a better choice, but I didn’t have a lot
of time to think about it. So anyway, when I was
born, I had bad genes and a bad environment. Other than that,
everything was good. I mean, bad genes kind
of slowly became evident. I’m not blaming my parents. My parents were terrific. Good genes, good nurturing, they
were supportive whatever I did, however misguided. But somewhere, I
managed to get genes for things like dyslexia,
narcolepsy, ADD, OCD, both at once. You know, how do you do that? And it had an impact. And then I was also born
sort of in MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, and
I kind of hung out in the mudflats of Florida
where I wasn’t really getting any kind of
education whatsoever. I mean, we’re not
talking about– I not only was not
getting an MIT education, I was really not– nobody around really
cared whether I was getting an education or not. I’m sure my parents did, but
again, they were great parents. And this became evident
as I went forward. You know, I was
constantly being put in remedial reading classes. At one point, I had to
take a class at nighttime. So it was a night
class and I didn’t even know night classes existed. I thought that this
was just punishment that they restricted
to the daytime. And I was in with
a bunch of adults. They had decided to
better themselves. I don’t think they consider
themselves failures. They were just
going to get ahead, and they were taking
speed reading. Most of the class
was on speed reading. But they also had
some remedial reading. That’s what I was in. And you know, I
got bored quickly with the remedial
reading, and I said, well I’m going to take speed reading. And they had this
little machine that would like project onto
the screen words really, really fast. I mean, they were subliminal. You could barely see them. And since I was, by far, the
youngest person in this– first of all, I was
amazed that there were people, adults that would,
after a long day of work, a longer day at work than I was
at school, they would come in and then they would
take another class. And so anyway, I was looking
at these things flashing. And since I was so young,
I could like speed read. And I’d say, wow. That’s really great. I’m both in the
remedial reading section and in the speed
reading section. And that went
nowhere because I had to take another remedial
reading class a few years later and I kept having troubles. But that isn’t what
led to my flunking out of graduate school. No, that took more work
than just having bad genes and a bad environment. So what I did was I was, of
course, taking a summer course here at MIT in about 1973. I was just finishing up my very
brief undergraduate career, my second year, and I was taking
a course in quantum physics. And in my spare
time, I said, gee. I’ve got a lot of spare
time while I’m doing poorly in my quantum physics class,
I should become a Guinea pig in a nutrition study. So back then, MIT had a
department of nutrition which we don’t have
anymore, and they would do experiments on people. And I said, wow, this is great. I’ll get free food
all summer long. They’re going to pay me some
amazing amount of money, you know, like $300, and
I’ll learn a little bit about nutrition. And so, turned out,
the study that I was enrolled in, or the
only available at the time was on leucine deprivation. Leucine, as some of you might
know, you biochem nerds, is an essential
amino acid, meaning it’s essential for
life for human beings. And if you don’t
get it– so they were trying to simulate the kind
of extreme protein deficiency you get in Kwashiorkor. And the result is
mental failure. And you know, I
didn’t really consider that in the whole balance sheet
of free food versus destroying an otherwise promising brain. And so I’m doing this
and my quantum physics is getting worse or
worse during the summer, and it all culminates with me– by the end of the study,
there’s nobody else in the study other than me. I mean, everybody else
had the good sense that– first of all,
it tasted terrible. I mean, in order to get
a leucine deficient diet, you have to– there’s no food that’s
missing leucine I mean, every food has
leucine, you know. You can’t avoid it. So they had to make
powdered amino acids. And you may like some
amino acids, like MSG. Probably you all like
MSG, but the rest of them, they’re pretty bad, you know? So you eat this powder. There’s no way to eat it. And then, of course,
everything else you eat has to be synthetics. So I was on, I think, what
the anti-GMO people would consider their dream diet. It was a DNA-free diet. It was so synthetic there was
no DNA in the diet whatsoever, and there wasn’t very
much leucine either. So anyway, I managed to
make it through that summer, and then I was, the next year,
starting graduate school. Prematurely, I would say. I was infantile, very immature. And on top of that, I was
brain damaged at this point. And so I started grad school,
and my first brilliant insight at the end of the summer
was, I don’t need to sleep, and therefore I don’t need
housing, so I will be homeless. OK. Off to a great start at
graduate school, right? And I was. I was homeless for six months. I finally decided it was
not such a great thing when I got influenza
and I didn’t really have a place to stay. And so I eventually
got a place to stay. But that was after six months
of trying this homeless thing. By the way, I did
the whole thing. I ate food that was left
behind in the stadium after the football game. You know, and ate food
out of the garbage. You know, I did the whole bit. So I’m not blaming this on
the MIT nutrition department by the way. But the reason I’m
so confident is that I had started research
as an undergraduate just the year before
as a sophomore, and I was doing great,
having a great time as a crystallographer. It brought together everything
that I enjoyed doing, and so I just
continued to do that. I did the
crystallography research, but I didn’t really quite
get the point of the classes. I mean, I should
have, because I had been an undergraduate
for a couple of years, and so I didn’t go to classes. I was just doing research. And I wasn’t even doing research
particularly well, I mean, technically speaking. For example, one day I
was in my bicycle cleats, and I decided I’m going to fetch
some highly concentrated acid. And I said, well, I think I
need two bottles of highly concentrated acid. And so I’m walking across this
terrazzo floor in my bicycle cleats. I’m up in the air and I’m down
on the ground, and you know, bicycle cleats are
not really made for working on slick floors. And of course, we’re in
a hospital research lab where they wax the
floors everyday. Anyway, both bottles break. I’m rolling around on the
ground, covered with acid, and I’m thinking, hm. This doesn’t look so good. You know? And so you know, I go
and I get cleaned up. And the next day I
come in I say, OK. I don’t know if it
was the next day, but soon thereafter, I
come in and I say, OK. I don’t trust shoes anymore. I’m not going to wear shoes. OK? And to put this in perspective,
my father, my genetic father– I had three fathers–
my genetic father was known for not wearing shoes. He basically didn’t
wear shoes from the time he was 18 until he
died when he was 83, except on rare
occasions, which I think was walking in the
door of his Air Force job. But then he immediately
took them off, and he even went to black-tie
affairs at the White House, I’m told, barefoot. But anyway, so I
thought, I’ll try what my father would recommend. And so I’ve got
really good grip, good traction on the ground. And then I walk in to
my lab, and I figured my lab is kind of like my home. I spend 100 hours a week there. I feel comfortable there. But this day is not my day,
because it’s site visit day. And the chairman
to our department has these distinguished
guests and they’re all in suits and ties. And I walk in
barefoot, in my shorts, you know, and I have no
choice of walking right straight through them. And so OK, I’ve endeared
myself to my department chair at that point. You’ve probably heard about
the acid as well, by this time. And then I proceed to flunk
a couple of classes, which you know, conceivably,
my professor who was an assistant
professor, which doesn’t amount to much
when it comes to throwing your weight around– and he weighed about 40
kilograms, by the way, so there wasn’t much weight
to throw around as well. And anyway, so there
was no appeals process. I should mention that, along
the way, when I remember, we had graduate advisors. So it’s not like
they didn’t care. We had graduate advisors
who would mentor us, in addition to great
mentoring I was getting from my advisor, who
was [? Sung Ho Kim. ?] He was really excited about
the research I was doing. And we had a graduate advisor
who, that was his main job. And so I would go in and sit
at his desk opposite him, and he would be talking to
me about graduate school. I think he had some kind
of script or something. And meanwhile, I’m looking
across his desk, past his head, and on his wall,
right behind him, are photographs of
graduate students. And you might think, how sweet? He cares about the
graduate students so much he has them
right behind his– the problem was that half
of the graduate students had big black Sharpie
through their face. And I say, I could
be one of those, and I was well on my way. And so anyway, I got this
nice letter from him, suitable for framing. And so now comes
the denoument part of the talk where I
ruin the punchline by explaining how I survive. So I’m a dropout, and some
of my really good friends– you know, the ones, the five– on the left side of the– are saying, well,
you know, maybe you should get professional help. Or the letter said, we’re
sorry you failed in this field, but maybe there’s
some other field that you could succeed in. And so I decide I’m going to be
a technician in the same lab. So I have a lot of
inertia, you know. Undergraduate, graduate student,
technician all in the same lab. I figure this is a golden
career opportunity, and I am a technician for about
a year or something like that. And my advisor, my terrific
advisor, [? Sung Ho Kim, ?] he takes me aside and he
says, you know, George, you’re not a very
good technician. You should apply
to graduate school. I said, you’ve got
to be kidding me. With my record? He says, no. Just humor me. Just try it. And so I say, OK. I’ve got to fail at
least one more thing. You know, I failed at being a
graduate student, a technician. Now I can fail at reapplying. And so I applied
to one university. You know, that’s bad. I don’t recommend that. It’s a bad choice. I’m still making bad
decisions at this point. And worse than that, it was
not the easiest university in the world to get into. It was Harvard University. And I said, well, the worst
that happens is I don’t get it and I get to stay as a
technician for a while. Even though I’m
a bad technician, he’s not going to
fire me at this. And I got in. And the question is,
why did I get in? Right? That’s part of the
denouement, you know, the deconstructing of this. And I don’t know exactly why. No one told me. No one explained it. Nobody said, you’re
on probation, kid. We’re taking you, but
we don’t want you. You know, there was
nothing– it was just like a simple form letter. You know, you’re supposed
to show up on this date. And so my rationalization
is I was a crystallographer. I had actually written five
paper while I was flunking out. So that is concrete. I was a crystallographer
and they desperately needed a crystallographer. Back then, it was hard really
hard to do crystallography. You could spend 10
years on a thesis and not have much
to show for it. And then a bunch of
labs suddenly needed it. So that might have helped,
although they never said that. They never recruited me,
particularly, for their labs. And I had gotten in before. I had said no to
them before, so I figured that probably
endeared me to them. And so it was some combination
of those things, and I got in, and I managed to
take courses again. And I managed to
make it through. And I have to say that
I am indebted to Harvard on multiple occasions. That was the first case. Well actually, that
was the second time. The first time, they’d given
me a summer job the summer before the quantum
physics course. And so that was their first– I don’t know why they did that. Then I don’t know why they
let me into graduate school exactly. And then later, when I was a
postdoctoral fellow applying to become an
assistant professor– so I’m a postdoctoral
fellow at UCSF. I have absolutely
no publications from my postdoctoral fellowship. It’s cut short because I’m
trying to get back to the East Coast to be with my girlfriend
who, by the way, is now my wife and we’ve got two grandchildren,
so that worked out. But anyway, I was
trying to get back, and I didn’t have much
to show for my postdoc. So anyway, Harvard gave me an
assistant professor position. And then the third time
is I’m up for tenure, and I lose my major
source of funding. And a little tenure
tip for those of you is one of the main things
that they use to judge you, it’s not really publications. It’s not popularity
in your course. It’s not even teaching
a rigorous course. It’s whether you can
pay for yourself, right? And so I had clearly shown that
I could not pay for myself. And nevertheless, they
let me get tenure, so I’m indebted to them
and I’m indebted to you for listening to
all of our failures. May you have many
failures and successes. And we have, even,
a motto in my lab that the goal is not
to avoid failure. It’s to fail fast and
get up and sing your song and get on to the next thing. And I must say that in
addition to practicing at failure, which I’ve
done so diligently, practicing isn’t enough. It’s not enough to
experience failure. I actually learned as much
from my negative role models as I did from my positive ones. So go out there and look. Look at all– and it’s not
like you’re making fun of them or you’re disrespecting
them or anything. They had trouble,
and you’re trying to learn from their
trouble without having to personally experience it. But you need to go beyond
that, not just learn from your negative
role models, but you need to invent failures that
neither you nor they have to experience. So it’s like, think
about machine learning. You know, this game
of go and chess. One of the big
breakthroughs was big data. But then the big
breakthrough after that was you run out of
big data, and you have to start making up your
own data so you play yourself. You play a huge number of
games against yourself. Well, you could do that too. I mean, I’m really
good at inventing failures in my own mind and
trying to live up to them. OK, anyway. So I’ll cut it there, and we
have Q&A. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 2 comments

  1. Definitely didn't fail at being a great teacher. Anyway, I was expecting a presentation on multiplex sequencing, probably should fix the typo in video title. ("Multiplex failures")

    Reply

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