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Oral history interview with George M. Church

  • 2008-Mar-03

George M. Church was born on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and lived near Tampa, Florida, until high school. He attended both public and Catholic schools, but says both systems were poor. As a result he read a lot, especially science, which he had always liked. When he was about ten he built an analog computer. For high school he was sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, which he loved and where he throve. Dartmouth College, which was nearby, was beginning timeshare computing, and Church used their computer to teach himself more about computers. When Church entered Duke University he found the computer there less sophisticated than the one he had used while at Andover. He took many classes, usually upper-level or graduate or independent studies (the last requiring that he have keys to the chemistry lab), and finished in two years. He took a summer course in quantum physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then began a job in Sung-Hou Kim's crystallography lab. There he "finally found the intersection of computers and biology." Also during these years he published five papers. In his self-proclaimed unconventional way, Church entered Harvard University's PhD program, doing sequencing in Walter Gilbert's lab, working on polony sequences, and developing some of the earliest sequencers; he introduced multiplexed sequencing. Next he worked a short while at Biogen Research Corporation before taking a postdoc in Gail Martin's lab at the University of California, San Francisco. He left California to be with his future wife, Ting Wu, in Boston, Massachusetts. She became a full professor with tenure at Harvard and eventually entered Church's lab. Needing a job in Boston, Church talked to a friend, Gary Ruvkun, who offered him an assistant professorship in genetics at Harvard Medical School. Church also was made a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and given a US Department of Energy grant. He has advanced through the ranks and is now Director of the Harvard-MIT Genome Technology Center and Director of the Lipper Center for Computational Genetics, as well as a full professor in genetics. Church's experience at Biogen had inspired an interest in the connection between academia and commerce, and he patented and began to license his work. He continues to be fascinated with the interface between synthesis and sequencing, believing that genomics should be functional and comparative. The Personal Genome Project in his own lab he hopes will help provide affordable personal genomics to many more people.

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