Yesterday’s big science news — the creation of a bacteria cell with a synthesized genome — comes from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, California. Craig Venter himself is already a scientific legend due to his role in the sequencing of the human genome. But one aspect of his story is less well-known, and shows how scientific talent can emerge from unlikely sources: In his case, the U.S. Navy and community colleges.
After high school, Venter joined the Navy and served in Vietnam as a medical corpsman in 1967-68. Corpsmen, like medics in the Army, treat wounded Navy sailors and Marines at the scene, sometimes in the midst of battles. Venter says the experience exposed him to the
“best and worst of human behavior”, and also sparked his interest in medicine and science. Like many veterans, Venter has maintained his links with his service buddies, and in 2008 Vietnam Veterans of America honored him for his contributions to science and veterans issues.
In an undated interview with the Foundation for California Community Colleges, Venter says that, growing up in San Francisco’s East Bay area, he was hardly a stellar student. So after the Navy, he chose to attend College of San Mateo (CSM), a community college, rather than a 4-year college. “Because of my prior experiences in the educational system,” Venter says, “I was uncertain if I was cut out for academic life or if academic life was cut out for me.” The G.I. Bill for returning veterans at that time provided a $130 monthly stipend for each month of service, for up to 36 months.
Venter credits CSM for his scientific success, including the human genome sequencing. “Had I not met such strong, enthusiastic professors right away at CSM, my educational experience and my life would have been very different from that point onward,” Venter says. He names Bruce Cameron, an English professor, and Kate Murashige, a chemistry professor; Venter says both are still friends. The CSM experience prepared him well for upper-division classes when he enrolled at University of California, San Diego, Venter says.
Community colleges have become something of a family tradition with Venter. His son, niece, and nephew started their college educations at community colleges before transferring into the University of California system. Even his mother took classes at CSM.