Reading Carrie Arnold’s excellent article on Carl Woese brought back memories of my own.
Carl was a huge influence on me and my first mentor, Ross Overbeek. Ross was a mathematician and computer scientist for much of his career, and it was largely Carl’s work that inspired him to join the then still nascent field of bioinformatics. And in turn, Ross’ infectious enthusiasm inspired me. In Carl’s later years, they collaborated on some projects, and it was a great thrill for me, just starting out in computational biology, to make the pilgrimage down to Urbana and spend the afternoon with Carl showing him what I’d been working on. It was an exciting time to be joining genomics. Venter and colleagues had just published the first genome sequence of a free-living organism, Methanococcus jannaschii, and we talked about what would become possible when there were hundreds and even thousands of microbes sequenced.
Later when I entered grad school and had the opportunity to invite a speaker for our seminar series, of course I asked Carl. I had been warned that the years of skepticism and attacks caused him to become somewhat of a hermit and not accept invitations anymore. Sure enough he declined, despite my insistence that I and my starry-eyed classmates would be the audience. To me it’s such a tragedy that Carl lived and continued to do research for over 30 years after his seminal work and couldn’t or wouldn’t be part of the scientific community. I wonder if he realized how many of my generation of young scientists (well, maybe not so young anymore) he inspired, and how much our view of genomics, microbiology, and evolution is owed to his.