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Human Genome Project

The Human Genome Project was the “crown jewel” of 20th century biology.  Notable, then, that this scientific gem was launched by the math, physics and supercomputing strengths of the DOE.

It’s late September 2003 and Alvin (Al) Trivelpiece is looking for a shirt.  The usually highly organized scientist and science administrator scans a room full of boxes containing the bulk of his and his wife’s belongings.  The couple has spent the past few days settling into their new home in Henderson, Nevada, an hour’s flight from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Sandia National Laboratory, where 72-year-old Trivelpiece is a consultant.

While unpacking, Trivelpiece came across a single page document – mounted on an 11-by-17 inch display panel – he’d used in the mid-1980s as the Director of the DOE’s Office of Energy Research.  During a dynamic 40-plus-year career involving stints as a university physics professor specializing in fusion, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Director of DOE’s 5000-person-strong Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Trivelpiece saw thousands of documents cross his various desks.  But this one from 1986, a mere 92 words long, was a keeper.  Because three of those words – strung together for perhaps the first time – would come to define late-20th century biology: Human Genome Project.

This is the little-known story of how Alvin Trivelpiece came to have a “pivotal piece of paper” that launched a biological revolution and dominated science headlines for a decade.  But behind the headlines – and later the photo-ops, presidential handshakes and the cover of Time Magazine – were a group of DOE scientists and administrators, including Trivelpiece and Charles DeLisi, who made the Human Genome Project (HGP) a reality.  And they did so at a time when most biologists said that the idea of deciphering the string of three billion A’s, T’s, G’s and C’s that constitute the human genome was “absurd”, “dangerous” or “impossible”.

The impact of these criticisms was buffered by the fact that many of the DOE staff promoting the project were physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists.  Which is what makes this a story not just about the HGP but about the history of scientific change and progress.  It asks us to think about how biology is done and the role of high-performance computing and math in understanding life.  And how great projects often involve leaders who trust what they know is true rather than what is in scientific vogue.

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