How did you discover that you were dyslexic?
The main thing I was bad at was timed reading because I’ve always read very slowly. Instead I focused on images in books through elementary school. Eventually, my mother earned her PhD in clinical psychology as I was becoming a teenager, and she tested me.
What type of reading instruction did you receive?
I was required to take remedial reading classes in eighth grade and my freshman year of college [at Duke University]. I grew up in Florida, and there I was made to go to a night class in addition to my regular school. The class had dyslexics and illiterates mixed in with speed readers, which was the strangest thing. Because the class was fairly unstructured, occasionally I would pretend to be in the speed-reading class. Apparently, I was really good at recognizing the words that they would flash incredibly fast. None of this instruction amounted to anything, but it helped open my mind to possibilities for different ways of learning.
You completed two bachelor’s degrees in zoology and chemistry in two years at Duke University before eventually receiving your PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard University. How did you navigate your demanding academic course load?
I would “read the pictures” growing up, and I gravitated towards STEM subjects that required less reading. As an undergrad and grad student I invented work-around skills. Because I read slowly, I would just read all the textbooks before the course started. The other thing I did was just listen in class. Other students wouldn’t listen, so they had to read, but I could listen and remember just about everything. Reading is still very slow for me, but I figure it out like a puzzle. I also listen to books on tape, or e-books today.
Have you faced any hurdles due to your dyslexia?
I had many social hurdles, particularly social awkwardness. I know a lot of teenagers feel they have social awkwardness, but I think mine was deeper than that. I had to figure out social workarounds to figure out how I could do what others were doing in some other way. Academically, I had to repeat ninth grade and the first two years of my PhD. Using a computer keyboard since 1968 has addressed some problems I have with writing.
Do you believe you have experienced any advantages due to your dyslexia?
My focus on “reading the pictures” gave me good spatial skills and good memory for images. As I looked to combine my interests in the natural world and the world of math, I found crystallography [the science of examining the properties and inner structures of crystals to determine the arrangement of atoms]. Crystallography is all about spatial relationships, symmetry, complicated 3D structures, and navigating your way through them. I learned quickly that I was good at that. That was one of the first big payoffs because I built the rest of my science on the foundation of crystallography, which in turn was based on the foundation of looking at pictures a lot.
You have had a prolific career, but is there a particular professional accomplishment of which you are most proud?
Since 1986, I’ve had about 300 researcher trainees that have worked in my laboratory, and they have been exposed to a radically innovative environment. It is very gratifying to be surrounded by bright, hardworking people capable of understanding even my most complex, forward-looking ideas and swiftly implementing them. It is rewarding to see the fruits of our many years of effort in use by people all over the world.
At the Church Lab at Harvard, what cultural values are most important to you as a leader in fostering an innovative environment?
I want people to follow their dreams and enjoy themselves every day. I don’t lead by commanding, but by example, or by slowly arranging an environment, like one where it’s okay to fail. When the consequences are not high, you can fail multiple times in a row so you can succeed. The word “impossible” is rejected. Instead of throwing an idea in the trash, we put it up on the wall and look at it every few months to see if there’s a new technique we developed that suddenly makes it possible. Another thing we try to do is bring down costs. Rather than figuring out how to raise money to solve a problem, we figure out how to reduce costs, as that has the advantage of helping people all over the world that can’t possibly raise that amount of money. Ultimately, our goal is to make everything [technologies and resources] free.
For students with dyslexia or language-based learning disabilities, what message do you have for them?
Our experiences will vary tremendously even if we share labels, but find your passions and strengths and move swiftly toward them. One of my favorite aphorisms as well is “I have been very lucky and find that the harder I work the luckier I am.”
Could genetic engineering be used to cure diseases and viruses to prevent future pandemics such as COVID-19?
We have engineered cells to be resistant to viruses one at a time based on the cell’s receptor. In the case of COVID-19, if you remove the ACE2 protein, you will be resistant to that coronavirus. We know how to do this one at a time, but it is hard to remove all receptors throughout life. Another strategy we have is we can change the code, or recoding of the genome, which makes us resistant to all viruses, including viruses we have not seen before. So far, our coding has been aimed at industrial microorganisms, but it could work for human transplanted cells or cell therapies. In principle, you could make the whole human body resistant to all viruses if you had good delivery. We are working on that, and we have started an international project to make different organisms resistant to all viruses, including pigs, plants, and humans.
This article was originally published in The Windward Institute’s The Beacon Spring 2020 issue. You can read the entire article at https://www.thewindwardschool.org/the-windward-institute/resources-for-educators-and-families/the-beacon/qa-with-inspiring-leaders-in-the-world-of-dyslexia/qa-profiles/~board/qa-with-inspiring-leaders-in-the-world-of-dyslexia/post/dr-george-church-founding-father-of-genomics.
To learn more about The Windward School, see www.thewindwardschool.org. Stephanie Huie is the Associate Director of Digital Communications & Publications at The Windward School.