Biotech founder and hero of the Human Genome Project joins UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute as Executive Director

Portrait of Lauren Linton
Lauren Linton.

After an extensive national search, the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute has selected a bold new executive director to lead their next phase of expansion and innovation.
Dr. Lauren Linton is a scientist, entrepreneur, and executive with experience leading institutions in genomics, pharmaceutical and diagnostic development, biotechnology, entrepreneurship, and innovation. She is well known in the genomics community as one of the leaders and heroes of the original Human Genome Project. Her efforts led to a dramatic 20-fold increase in productivity for the center now known as the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to make it the lead sequencing center for the public project, which resulted in the world’s first human genome reference. 
After a successful and varied career in both industry and academia, Linton is excited to be returning to academic genomics research and contributing to the bold vision that the Genomics Institute has been building on for the past two decades.
“The UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute is such an important player in the field,” Linton said. “Coming here is really a ‘full circle’ moment for me. As one of the original leaders of the Human Genome Project, I understand the limitations of the original reference sequence. It's great to be able to join the leading-edge work that's being done here at UC Santa Cruz. Their efforts to improve and diversify the original reference genome and lead real-world impact through work with the CDC, large scale conservation genomics collaborations, incredibly powerful computational and visualization platforms, and outstanding mentorship and diversity programs for raising up the next generation of scientists are crucial for advancing the field.”

Linton’s hire is a part of UC Santa Cruz’s larger strategic initiative to expand research programs in areas where it has unique strengths. The campus has long been a leader in genomics, and is looking to further expand its influence after a series of high-profile breakthroughs.
“The research we are conducting in genomics has shown that it can have a real impact on society, medicine, conservation, and public health,” UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive said. “We are glad that Dr. Linton is joining us because her experience and past accomplishments demonstrate that she can help us continue to build on our rich history in this area. These efforts will raise the profile of the entire campus and make us a destination for deep, interdisciplinary research focused on real-world applications.”
A shared history 
Linton first learned of UC Santa Cruz when she and David Haussler, then a professor of computer science, worked on the original Human Genome Project in the 1990s and early 2000s. Linton had been recruited to join the Whitehead/MIT Genome Center, which later became the Broad Institute, because of her success in the pharmaceutical industry founding a company called Praecis Pharmaceuticals that brought a drug for prostate cancer from bench to market. Whitehead needed Linton’s help reorganizing and developing methods, tools, and automation to scale up their efforts in the public sequencing project in order to beat Celera, a private company that many feared would try to patent the genome if they were successful first. 

As Celera closed in, Linton and the Whitehead Center pivoted to a “shotgun” sequencing approach that took less time overall, but resulted in thousands of separate pieces of the genome that then needed to be put together like a giant puzzle. Jim Kent, then a graduate student in biology at UC Santa Cruz, told Haussler he had a computational solution to put the pieces together.
“Without the code David and Jim created, we couldn't have done it. Just could not have done it,” Linton said. “The world owes them a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
After the Human Genome Project, Kent went on to create and direct the UC Santa Cruz Genome Browser, which continues to give hundreds of thousands of scientists free access to multiple genomes and drives important research worldwide. Haussler went on to found the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute and is now its scientific director. 

The UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute has continued to build and maintain open-source tools for genomics research and explore applications in health and conservation, while also investing in training programs to encourage more students from diverse backgrounds to enter the field. After a period of rapid development leading large-scale projects in sequencing, pathogen, computational, and conservation genomics, Haussler feels that now is the time for the institute to achieve its mission of “genomics for everyone.”

“This is a critical moment for the institute, and we were looking for someone who could really help us build on our great successes at a time when the impact of genomics is expanding so dramatically,” Haussler said. “Lauren’s incredible track record demonstrates  how she is able to create  programs that expand beyond normal academic boundaries to have a true impact on society. I am thrilled we were able to recruit someone of her caliber.” 
Linton’s vision 

After leaving MIT, Linton has built a career guiding inventors, academics, startups, and biotech companies through diverse phases of growth, from early research and development to product launch. She’s also led and founded research institutes within universities and knows what it takes to bring them from a place of steady growth to an “inflection point” of steeper, more rapid expansion. She believes that the Genomics Institute has the potential to reach that point within the next several years. 

“I like to pose the question of how academia can move from a focus on outputs, like papers and talks, to outcomes–asking the questions: Who will this affect? What difference can we make? What impact will we generate? The great news is that the Genomics Institute has started asking these questions, and delivering on them. The potential for meaningful growth here is really extraordinary.”
To build on this potential, Linton says that the institute will need to continue to expand the multidisciplinary approach upon which it was founded. She praises the Baskin School of Engineering, which houses the Genomics Institute, for its foresight and leadership in making the space for these kinds of collaborations between the sciences and engineering early on. Broadening the promise of genomics will similarly require strengthening relationships with all areas of campus, from engineering to the arts. 

“The Baskin School of Engineering is guided by a mission of improving the world and our place in it through rigorous interdisciplinary education and visionary research” said Alexander Wolf, dean of the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz. “Having Dr. Linton in this role will help us build on our strengths in biomolecular engineering, open-source software development, entrepreneurship, and interdisciplinary collaborations that have real-world impacts.”
Next steps: asking, ‘what if’?

Last month, Linton began a broad “learning and listening tour,” with faculty, staff and trainees from multiple areas of campus to assess the state of the institute, identify opportunities for growth, and prepare it for its next phase. To continue that open ears/open minds strategy, she has also implemented an open-door and office hours policy. 
“I love driving ‘what if’ conversations, and as excitement builds about those dream-level visionary goals, have that become ‘why not?’ and then ‘how about now?’” Linton said. “I think it's that kind of moment for the institute. We are considering our next 10 year vision and finding how we are uniquely positioned to deliver on it. The institute and the field of genomics have both grown so much in the past 20 years. The time is ripe to get into that genetic information and be able to use it to develop an increased understanding of biological function, health, evolution, and our planet in a way that will truly benefit the world.”