When Mark McGwire hit his 70th—and final—home run of the 1998 baseball season, Philip Ozersky was in the right place to make the catch. Traveling at 115 miles per hour, the ball caromed off the wall of the left-field Bullpen Room in St. Louis's Busch Stadium. Ozersky played the ricochet, diving under temporary bleachers to grab the record-breaking souvenir and later auctioned it off for $3 million.
Even though his catch was like winning the lottery, Ozersky did not retire to an exotic South Sea isle to live off his millions. Instead, the St. Louis native went back to work for someone named Bob Waterston.
“It's not like I could have gone to live in my own little island anyway, but it never crossed my mind not to return to the sequencing center. The work is so important, and the people who run this place are so good to work with, that it was a pretty easy decision to return,” the millionaire says.
This lucky Cardinals fan even now continues his work as a research technician in the sequencing laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis where scientists mapped parts of the human genome. And although the media went ga-ga over McGwire's home run, the real record breaker came two years later, when Ozersky's boss, Robert Waterston, and other leading scientists in the United States and England announced they had mapped the basic code to human life. Waterston and his collaborator, John Sulston, had become the Wright Brothers of sequencing—developing methods and organizations to sequence the human genome, all the while insisting that any member of the public should be able to access its mysteries via the Internet.
The promises of the human genome are astonishing—a cure for cancer, and antidote for aging, a test for predicting future maladies such as heart disease. But the genome sequence is data, not cures. And it is not at all clear how science and medicine can get from all this data to something you can pop in your mouth.
In January, Waterston said good-by to St. Louis, Busch Stadium and his genome sequencing laboratory. He left Washington University to hold the William Gates III Endowed Chair in Biomedical Sciences and to become the first chair of the Department of Genome Sciences in the UW School of Medicine. At the UW, Waterston is being reunited with two other genome pioneers from his St. Louis days—Maynard Olson and Philip Green.
How Waterston became a leader in the world of genomics—and how he landed in Seattle—involves twists of fate almost as lucky as Ozersky's catch. If he hadn't overstayed a summer sabbatical on Cape Cod (to the chagrin of his thesis adviser), if overcrowding at an English research center hadn't sent him into another lab, if he hadn't taken an offhand comment seriously—he might not be one of the top genetic scientists in the world and now welcomed to the UW.
Born in September 1943, Waterston grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he met his future wife, Pat, in ninth grade. He graduated from Princeton University in 1965, playing both basketball and football (and meeting future NBA star and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley on the court). His college major was engineering, but in his senior year, Waterston decided he wanted to be a doctor.
While in medical school at the University of Chicago, Waterston decided to embark on a simultaneous Ph.D. track. He was fascinated by the basics of biology—and the underlying reasons for the development of traits and illnesses. “Most of my medical lectures would leave off just when they were starting to get interesting,” he says.
Waterston took an influential summer course in 1969 at Wood's Hole, Mass., that would determine the course of his career. Scheduled to spend six weeks there, another researcher convinced him to stay for the other half of the summer (“My thesis adviser had thought this whole thing had been a lark, and just about killed me when I stayed,” he recalls.) But there was a happy ending. The guests for the second half included Sydney Brenner, a godfather of genetic studies. (He and colleagues discovered messenger RNA and he later won the Nobel Prize for his work on the genetic basis of organ development and cell death.)