The Reluctant Geneticist

He is an anomaly in the world of science, a man who never intended to be a scientist but seems to have a knack for genetics. Joseph D. Terwilliger, assistant professor in the psychiatry department at Columbia University in New York City, ended up in graduate school at Columbia because it paid better than a fast-food restaurant.

"Honestly, I never wanted to be a scientist," Terwilliger insists. "I did not take any science classes in high school to speak of, and I did my undergraduate work at the Peabody Conservatory of Music [in Baltimore]. I took a few genetics courses there because it was kind of interesting, but I never imagined going into science."

After receiving a Bachelor?s of Music in tuba performance, Terwilliger headed to New York City with the hopes of pursuing a career in music. After applying to a number of graduate schools in different fields, he handed his life over to the course of fate, which directed him down his current career path.

"Columbia accepted me in genetics, much to my surprise," Terwilliger explains. "I could not believe they were actually going to pay me to go to grad school. In music you have to teach classes just to pay your tuition, and then you have to get a job to pay the rent, while in science they actually were going to pay me, which seemed like an unbelievable scam at the time."

An unbelievable scam perhaps, but it worked out well for Columbia University, since he seemed to have an innate ability as well as a driving interest in statistical genetics. "I went to grad school since it was better than working at McDonald?s like most people with a degree in music. I was amazed to find out I was good at it, and actually enjoyed it. After a few years of auditions and trying to pursue the music career, I realized that science was a much more reliable way to make a living."

Terwilliger still plays the tuba in a few working music groups. Science, however, has become his primary career through what he calls "a series of fortuitous accidents, not any real life plan." Initially he decided statistical genetics might be a good fit for him because he knew he was good at math, viewing genetics as "fun math games."

"When I first came for my interview, my future advisor told me he worked on linkage analysis and gene mapping; I smiled, and said ?great.? Actually I was wondering in my head what the heck linkage analysis and gene mapping was."

After completing an M.A, M.Phil., and a Ph.D. in genetics and development at Columbia he received a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Hitchings-Elion Fellowship. Terwilliger spent his fellowship working with G. Mark Lathrop at the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics, developing statistical methods and writing software. "I work with development statistical genetics, as well as the application and design of genetic experiments," Terwilliger explains. "I?m a statistician. I work on ways of analyzing data; helping people design experiments and trying to find the best way of collecting data."


Joseph D. Terwilliger, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Columbia University

What is the best thing about your job?


What kind of advice would you give a scientist just entering academic research?

Think about everything from first principles, and never believe anything anyone tells you unless they can prove it to you from first principles, not from mere extension of existing ideas, which may be flawed from first principles themselves.

What do you feel is your greatest failure? Why?

That I did not get a job as an orchestral tuba player as I always wanted to do!

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment? Why?

That I managed to successfully switch careers when circumstances presented themselves, going from musician to scientist in a relatively short time, and being fairly successful in statistical genetics despite that when I started this program in grad school in 1987, I did not know what an integral, a probability, a lod score, or really even what recombination was.

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy music, obviously. I continue to play professionally when I am home, although lately my work has me traveling a bit more than I would like. As a result of the traveling I also have developed an interest in lots of different languages and cultures, which I think is critical to really getting involved in genetic projects, which aim to study those people. The look on the faces of people last month in China when I gave my genetics lecture in Chinese was worth the effort I put into learning that, for example. Then, of course, there are the other silly things, like two years ago I decided to enter the Nathan?s hot dog eating contest. I actually came in second, beating one former world champion, which was pretty exciting, although I have not eaten a hot dog since, as I was uncomfortable for a week. Eating 19 foot-long hot dogs with buns in 12 minutes can be a bit taxing! But it was certainly fun the first time!

What do you plan to do when you retire?

I thought the best part about scientific academic careers is that you are not required to retire.

Terwilliger is now working to gather pilot data and coordinate international collaboration for a study to investigate the Korean diaspora. "Koreans are a unique natural experiment in this regard, as the Kazakhstan Koreans were forcibly relocated there by Stalin in 1937. Today there are about 250,000 Koreans in central Asia as a result of that forced migration event."

There are more than 100,000 Korean adoptees in Europe and the United States who are biologically Korean and culturally European, according to Terwilliger. "These populations provide a unique laboratory to look at gene-environment interactions in humans," he says. "We can make more realistic estimates of how genetically linked some of these traits really are. It is easy to show that most study designs currently used systematically bias the estimates of heritability upwards, making everything appear more genetic than it really is. We are proposing a study design that will show that phenotypes are not as genetic as we think they are."

Maybe it's a result of being something of an outsider, of not being as fully indoctrinated as some of his colleagues, but Terwilliger's skepticism, along with his willingness to express his unpopular opinions, are defining traits of his young career. His studies in Finland, which he describes as a "nearly ideal setting," have made him skeptical of the prospects of future gene-mapping studies. Terwilliger notes that the Finnish studies have had "rather limited success with any but the simpler genetic traits."

"I get a lot of flack for stating my rather unpopular opinions on this issue," adds Terwilliger, "But since 1998 when we started writing about this, people have continually said ?next year we'll have examples to counter your skepticism,? and I am still waiting. It has certainly helped my career to be honest and unafraid to say what I think."

This, Terwilliger feels, is a crucial issue for young scientists. Be bold. "People are afraid to say anything controversial because of the potential [research funding] repercussions, so the biggest thing I would say to younger people in career development terms is that speaking out when you have an opinion is the best thing you can do to help your own case. If you are afraid to say things or question popular wisdom you will not get very far in science."

Is there anything he'd do differently if he had it to do over again? Not much. "No more hot dog contests, that is for sure. I think I am still sick from the last attempt."

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