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Computing Systems

Endy Interview: “Personal”
David Bochner
November 30, 2006

DB: First just the little simple things How old are you?

DE: 35

DB: Where are you from?

DE: Pennsylvania. Near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

DB: Nice historical site. Middle name?

DE: All sorts of funny answers for that one. For the record we can go with David.

DB: My first name. Good name. Any siblings?

DE: 2 brothers.

DB: How many degrees do you have?

DE: I have 3 degrees in engineering.

DB: How many years of school, after high school, did that take you to get?

DE: Nine. Four years of college and five years of graduate school. It sounds like a lot, but it’s not.

DB: So, where did you get your worst grade ever, that you can remember? In what class, or what field?

DE: Oh…all over the place! My undergraduate GPA was a low 2. Which would be like a C minues, or a C plus? Pretty bad.

DB: Any particular horror stories?

DE: I took …in engineering, when I took my first course, my first course was called Engineering 1. It was a computer programming course, and I failed it twice before I passed it. So I took that course three times. I failed it because I didn’t like it. Then I got a D in biology, because they wanted us to remember 200 insect species by their names. I thought that was stupid so I chose not to do that. And so on. There’s actually quite a number of horror stories with my grades.

DB: Let’s go on to a little lighter topic. Any pets at home?

DE: Plants.

DB: Do you have a favorite book?

DE: My favorite book…I like lots of books. I’d say Plato’s Republic

DB: Good one. I had to read that last year.

DE: In English or Greek?

DB: English. I imagine it’s not as good…

DE: It’s a pretty cool book.

DB: Got a favorite movie?

DE: Absolutely. What would it be, though?

DB: I know, they’re so hard.

DE: Should’ve sent me these ahead of time, so I could prepare.

DE: Favorite movie…Harold and Maude. You seen that?

DB: Parts of it. Only caught it on TV.

DE: Aw.

DB: How about a favorite mad scientist?

DE: Favorite mad scientist. Besides Dr. Evil?

DB: He counts as a mad scientist.

DE: Um. Favorite mad scientist…

DB: You don’t have to decide on someone else if you like Dr. Evil.

DE: Who else was there, besides Dr. Evil? The person from inspector gadget. Who was that…the Claw?

DB: I think Doctor Claw.

DE: I’m not sure about that, though. Favorite Mad scientist. Strangelove, no…

DE: Dr. Evil’s fine. Predictable, though.

DB: So, what’s a typical day like, for you? A day in the life?

DE: It’s just lots of meetings about a lot of different things. I feel like I’m an enzyme, basically. I don’t actually do anything, I just sort of help stuff to try and happen. . So every now and then I get a little bit of time to think. And so I had this question, are we discovering biology faster or slower than nature is inventing new biology. Are we winning the race? Are we catching up or are we falling behind? I didn’t know. And I didn’t know how to answer the question, I didn’t know how I’d frame that. So I thought a start would be to estimate the total amount of DNA on the planet. How many base pairs of DNA are on planet earth today. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and this number could be completely wrong, but my estimate was about 10 to the 35th base pairs of DNA on the planet. So how good are we at sequencing DNA? What is the worldwide sequencing capacity? I don’t know that number either, but I think I over-estimated it as 10 to the 11th base pairs of DNA per month can be sequenced. Which means it would take 10 to the 24th months. About one mole of months, to sequence all of the DNA on the planet. Which leads me to believe that we’ve got a lot of work to do in biology. I was having a conversation with some political theorists, and they were asking me why I am interested in synthetic biology, and the short answer to them was that I was dissatisfied with my inability to understand the natural world. I am trying to construct a synthetic world that is easier for me to understand. And they’re like, “Well, how do you know that you’re not gonna finish understanding the natural world.” And I didn’t know. So those are the sorts of things I spend my own time on, for better or worse.

DB: What tends to inspire the kinds of projects you work on? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

DE: My motivation is that, one, five, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, anybody who wants to is able to dream up a useful biological system and pull it off.

DB: Can you think of the first time you had a “Eureka moment,” when you said “Oh my God, I know how this could work”?

DE: It’s every day. One of the things about being a good researcher is that you want to critically evaluate what you’re doing frequently. I make mistakes all the time, in terms of It’s a series of realizations.

DB: What do you like most about your job?

DE: A lot of different stuff to do. I get to interact with lots of different people, I get to learn a tremendous amount. The research community is a worldwide community, it’s international. I probably go to ten different countries a year. The people in research are some of the coolest, interesting, nicest people you’re ever going to meet. It’s just a great experience. And I like the satisfaction of, well, for me, a very basic motivation is that if I can provide more agency for people to be constructive, to make stuff, I think that there’s something about that which is the very essence of what it means to be alive. So, being able to do that, and in a position where I can contribute to that is extraordinarily rewarding.

DB: What do you think makes for a successful scientist? .

DE: Somebody who’s having fun doing what they’re doing. A successful scientist is someone who wakes up in the morning and that’s what they’re thinking about. You’re in the shower, and you’re like “Ah! Huh, you know…” You can’t wait to get into the lab or talk to somebody about it. Whether or not you ever understand something or not, that’s something I consider to be optional. From my perspective, the most important thing you can learn in graduate school is how to become a fully independent researcher. Because that’s what you’re going to go do, right? So that might mean that not one of your experiments succeeds, but rather, if that’s the case, you use that as an experience, a substrate for learning. How to recognize when experiments aren’t working, to decide and choose to do something new. And if you get really, really good at that, then over time, some of your experiments will start working. The best scientists I’ve seen are the people who recognize when things are failing and abandon them without feeling bad. It was not the right time to ask this question. We didn’t have the right technology to do these experiments. I thought this was a good idea, but actually, it’s a bad idea. And so the best, most fun-loving, happy scientists I know are the ones who’re doing this sort of high-throughput turnover of, “Let’s try this! Let’s try this!” You’ve got to invest enough energy to get something to some minimal point of completion, so you can honestly and accurately evaluate what’s going on. If you do enough experiments as a scientist, you’ll be a good scientist. Two dozen of your one hundred experiments will work. And the best scientists who I know are having the most fun are the ones who are able to do that rapid turnover.

DB: My next question was what makes for a happy scientist, but it seems like successful and happy for you are sort of the same.

DE: I don’t see what I’m doing as work. I’m doing what I want to be doing, and if I wasn’t, I would change it. If at some point in the future, I’d rather be raising pheasants in southern France, or northern France, or wherever they raise pheasants in France, I presume I would go do that. But it’s a act of choice to be here, and it’s hard to imagine being in research under different conditions.

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