Robert Plenge, MD, PhD
Head, Genetics and
Merck Research Labs
ASHG: If you could go back to when you
were a trainee, what is one piece of advice you would give
yourself for your current career?
Dr. Plenge: Embrace uncertainty. By its very nature, scientific
exploration is uncertain, and the most profound observations
are often unexpected. During my PhD training, there were
several “dark periods” when things just didn’t work. Rather
than fretting about the practical aspects of failure – will
I publish this paper? get this grant? graduate on time! – I
wish I had embraced this expected uncertainty. This frame of
mind is very healthy in science.
ASHG: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
My favorite part is easy, albeit a bit grandiose: I have the
potential to impact human knowledge and human health. There
are not many careers that offer this possibility. A big
thrill for me is when I see how this new insight can be
translated into the lives of patients.
My least favorite part? Probably the usual stuff:
bureaucratic meetings where I feel like I am running to
stand still. However, I accept that this is part of just
about any modern job, and I do what I can to endure, knowing
that the end justifies the means.
ASHG: What do you
think the future holds for the field of genetics?
The future is amazing! I have a hard time imagining a world
where human genetics is not part of our daily lives. It is
not unreasonable to think that very soon we will have
complete genome sequence data on every consenting citizen in
the industrialized world. As digital and mobile technology
advance, and as citizen-scientists embrace their active role
in discovery research, real-world clinical data will be
collected in real time and linked with genome sequence data
to advance our knowledge of human health and disease. This
information will be used to transform many industries,
including the one in which I currently work (the
pharmaceutical industry). Today, most drug targets are
selected based on an incomplete understanding of human
biology. In the future, all drug targets will emerge from an
understanding of “causal human biology”, and human genetics
is one of the most promising strategies to differentiate
between cause and consequence in human physiology.
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