Savor the journey more than the finish line

October 31, 2001

We tend to interpret current events in terms of an end point, often a grandiose one. We see modern genomics research as leading to personalized medicine: cures for intractable diseases. Always, it seems, the most recent discovery is seen as the

We tend to interpret current events in terms of an end point, often a grandiose one. We see modern genomics research as leading to personalized medicine: cures for intractable diseases. Always, it seems, the most recent discovery is seen as the beginning, and somewhere out ahead is the inevitable, inescapable result.

The truth is, however, that only in hindsight can we tell whether a promising lead was actually a beginning or a blind alley. Genomics is that way. What we see today as an enormous opportunity to cure disease and extend life goes back a half century to Francis Crick and James Watson. In 1953, these Englishmen announced that they had figured out the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and determined that this double helix of protein contained the hereditary information that makes us what we are.

It is important to note that, while Watson and Crick are generally credited with this groundbreaking discovery, they could not have succeeded without the efforts of others, particularly Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, two competitors whose research was critical to the correct understanding of DNA. Additionally, excitement over what Watson and Crick described as “the secret of life” was tempered by the knowledge that this discovery was only one step on a long road.

It would be decades before genetic engineering began turning this knowledge into real-world products. Along the way, however, we learned much about humankind. We learned that this DNA molecule holds the blueprint for exact copies of itself, leading to the continuation of the individual and replication of the species. That knowledge changed the way we look at life. But more than that, in the process of gaining this knowledge, we learned about the human spirit, the indomitable will of researchers to press forward despite the odds and against the advice of naysayers; to see opportunity and to grasp it.

We can take our bearings on distant goals, much like a traveler navigates by the stars. But our aspirations should remain rooted to the earth. We will reach a multitude of lesser accomplishments along our way to some greater objective. Maybe these won’t be cures for disease, but they might provide a better quality of life or increased longevity. Maybe they won’t push a company to the top of the industry ladder, but they might strengthen the bottom line.

What we achieve along the way, the successes we realize, are milestones and worthy of notice, if for no other reason than to mark our progress on a very long journey.