The Seduction of a Scientist

Collaboration: A controversial partner entices a faltering Hamilton Smith into the fast lane of genetics research.

April 12, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff

The temptation of Hamilton Smith came in the spring of 1993, while he was wandering in the scientific wilderness.

The all-but-forgotten winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine, attending a genetics conference in Bilbao, Spain, ambled into a hotel bar. As Smith sat alone, he spotted a younger researcher.

"You're Craig Venter, aren't you?" Smith asked.

"Yeah?"

"Where are your horns?"

With piercing blue eyes, wild eyebrows, and gray spikes of hair, Venter, then 46, didn't just look devilish. Many of his colleagues regarded the sharp-featured scientist as the Dark Prince of molecular biology, bent on plundering the treasures hidden in human DNA.

Brash and competitive, Venter would soon reap more than $9 million from his research, and could expect to earn tens of millions more. A few years after leaving a modestly paid government post, he would buy a $1.25 million home on a 5-acre spread in Potomac, acquire an 82-foot racing yacht, fly in private jets and roar around Montgomery County in a Mercedes convertible and Range Rover.

Portraying himself as overmatched, Venter still has managed to roll past rivals in a crowded field. Money is not his only ambition: He wants to discover great things. And he could achieve that goal much faster, he complains, if those who lack his sweeping vision would stop blocking his path.

"I can see the clear impact several stages down the road and get very frustrated when people are stuck back at the first stage," he says. "I come up with breakthrough ideas and breakthrough approaches ... only to be met by negativism and personal attacks from my so-called colleagues."

Fluent in the language of self-promotion, Venter steers conversations into recitals of his scientific triumphs. He describes himself, in his nasal voice, as the "spiritual leader" of a "world-class team" that is "doing some of the highest quality scientific work that this field has ever seen." He is, he says, "stunned" by the "beauty and impact" of that work, and peppers his talk with claims about "working outside the box."

Not so long ago, many researchers re- mained aloof from the grubby world of commerce. But the once-fortified border between academia and industry has been breached and nearly obliterated. A new species of scientist-entrepreneur has emerged in this former frontier, none more flamboyant and controversial than Venter.

That night in Spain, Smith listened as Venter talked about his love of science, insisting that he was miscast as a mercenary. To Smith's surprise, he found himself sympathizing.

The contrast between the two could not be starker: Shy and self-effacing, Smith appears indifferent to power or prestige.

"He has virtually no ego, as far as I can tell," says Dr. Jeremy Nathans, a Johns Hopkins neuroscientist. Money wasn't important to Smith. His first graduate student, Kent Wilcox, says Smith confided more than once that he would come to work even if Hopkins didn't pay him.

Matthew Meselson, a Harvard biochemist, describes Smith as an old-fashioned gentleman scientist. After winning the Nobel, Smith wrote Meselson and practically apologized, saying the Harvard professor's contributions had been wrongly ignored. It was an unusual gesture.

"Most people are pretty decent and pretty generous," says Meselson. "But Ham is very decent and very generous."

Elite scientists like Smith often seem like rumpled members of a dignified club. Venter, though, behaves more like a gate-crashing lottery millionaire. A flashy dresser, he exults in his wealth and expensive toys; he's also given to puns and sexual double-entendres.

At a party with his staff, Venter sprayed subordinates with a Super-Soaker water gun; during a Miami Beach conference, he staged a rock 'n' roll bash at a mansion that once belonged to fashion designer Gianni Versace. In Bilbao, Venter flirted with a young woman by echoing an old advertising slogan: "You flick my Bic."

Smith, though, was impressed with Venter's ability to think big, to break rules. "Here's a guy who will take something other people will discard as being too big a risk and he'll just go after it and make it work," Smith says. "Craig is able to boldly do stuff and pull people together to do these big projects and run the whole show."

Venter saw things in Smith that most had missed: a stubborn competitive streak, a secret rebelliousness and an ability to anticipate where research was leading.

"He's a great intellect, a great thinker," Venter says. "I think he takes advantage of my brashness. My guess is, we both wish we could be a little more like the other person."

Family matters

A few weeks after their meeting in Spain, Venter invited Smith to become an adviser to the Institute for Genomic Research, Venter's research center in Montgomery County. Smith had little else to do: His career was sputtering. He hadn't produced a single scientific paper in a year and a half and was making plans to close his Hopkins lab.

Idle at work, Smith found himself taking on more family responsibilities.

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