Career Interview: Robert Plenge, MD, PhD

Head, Genetics and Pharmacogenetics, and Vice President
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?

Dr. Plenge: 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?

Dr. Plenge: 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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