Robert B. Darnell, M.D., Ph.D., took up triathlons over the past year or so, but already has accomplished much, having completed the New York City, Westchester, and New Jersey State Sprint events.
Soon, Dr. Darnell will embark on another kind of running, as new president and scientific director of the New York Genome Center (NYGC), a consortium of academic medical centers. He will oversee NYGC’s research efforts, working with founding executive director Nancy J. Kelley, J.D., to fuse the center’s genomic science and computational biology expertise.
“More interesting to me is the possibility of merging the science and the clinical together, to really solve some of the problems that have been insoluble up to now, such as complex disorders for which there’s no easy answer right now, but I think insights are right around the horizon,” Dr. Darnell told GEN.
Dr. Darnell will retain his Rockefeller University post as Robert and Harriet Heilbrunn professor at the Laboratory of Molecular Neuro-oncology with a research focus on paraneoplastic neurologic disorders. He will also remain an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Dr. Darnell is very familiar with NYGC; he is a member of its executive board of directors, and served on its founding board two years ago. He got involved with NYGC after concluding it held exciting potential for answers to the problem that has vexed him and molecular biology investigators worldwide—processing and analyzing the torrents of human genome data from high-throughput sequencers.
“If we pool our resources and all do the same thing together, and figure out how to attack this information, we can produce a result that’s much greater than the sum of the parts,” Dr. Darnell said. “The idea here is to be more than just a genomic service that produces information, although it is an imperative that we produce information in a timely and an extremely high-quality fashion.”
NYGC’s permanent facility at 101 Avenue of the Americas—under construction and set to begin move-in by May 2013—will feature about 30 next-generation Illumina HiSeq 2500 sequencers. The consortium’s pilot lab has one HiSeq 2500 and three HiSeq 2000s. The center also has from Life Technologies four Ion Proton sequencers, housed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Over time, the consortium plans to grow to 500 staffers—bioinformaticists and sequencing specialists, support staffers, and academic genomicists and computational scientists.
Succeeding at NYGC, Dr. Darnell said, will require at least two qualities needed for success in triathlons: “endurance and grit.”
He took up running-swimming-biking events thanks to his wife Jennifer C. Darnell, Ph.D., a Rockefeller research associate professor who focuses on Fragile X syndrome research. Science runs in the family: his father James Darnell is a Lasker Special Achievement Award winner. Her father Eugene H. Cordes was a longtime chemistry faculty member at Indiana University and University of Michigan, with stints at Merck and Eastman Kodak. Her mother Shirley earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and the Darnells’ daughter, Alicia, is pursuing a molecular and cellular biology Ph.D. at Harvard.
“You get carried on at the end, when you’re exhausted, by the humanity around you. I felt it in the New York City triathlon after finishing the swim and the bike ride. Running into Manhattan, and seeing crowds cheering one on, is an experience in joint humanity that was really wonderful.”