The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
Most who knew Craig Venter during his formative years in Millbrae would have howled laughing at anyone predicting the distracted youngster would go on to decode the book of life.
But the world-renowned doctor is returning home to share with his native community an unconventional journey beginning as a disengaged Mills High School student and leading to recognition as an icon in the study of genomics, biology and medicine.
“I am probably the least likely graduate from Mills to be receiving an honor of their most distinguished graduate,” said Venter, 70, ahead of two ceremonies Wednesday, Jan. 24, at the Millbrae high school during which he will receive recognition from his alma mater and city officials.
Venter’s list of prestigious accolades includes receiving the National Medal of Science in 2008 from former President Barack Obama and being listed among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. The honor were primarily due to his pioneering work in successfully sequencing the human genome — referred to colloquially by the scientific community as the book of life.
But rising to such heights would have seemed exceedingly unlikely to anyone who knew Venter circa 1960, when he was more likely to be found at the beach in pursuit of the next great wave than the science lab.
“Craig, as we knew him was a terrible student, more interested in the three ‘Ss’ (swimming, shop and surfing) than the three ‘Rs,’” said his former classmate Thomas Kay in an email. “He barely graduated high school and had no direction.”
Venter shared a similar recollection, claiming he was only able to escape high school by the skin of his teeth.
“I graduated only because I got a D rather than an F,” he said. “I didn’t even make it to the list of those least likely to succeed.”
Following his graduation, Venter moved to San Diego to pursue a career as a professional surfer, but was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, where his interest in medicine was sparked.
“Using knowledge to save lives totally changed my outlook on life and desire to learn,” he said.
Following his time in the military, Venter enrolled at the College of San Mateo where he met teachers who encouraged him to pursue a career in health care by transferring to the University of California at San Diego, the institute he credits for finally hooking him on the thrills of scientific discovery.
“When I got into the world where understanding and unique thinking took over, I went from a disadvantage to an extreme advantage,” he said.
The pinnacle of his storied career came years later when Venter led the first team to sequence the human genome, an accomplishment considered by many one of the last century’s greatest scientific achievements.
He also worked to create the first living organism with a synthetic genome and published the first complete version of the human genome — based on his own DNA sequence.
He is also president of the Venter Institute, founder of Human Longevity, Inc., author of two books and is responsible for variety of other ventures designed to further his innovative work in genomics, biotechnology and health care.
“The goal is to fundamentally change the practice of medicine, which is now reactive,” he said.
Much of his work is focused on improving early identification of diseases such as cancer in hopes of enhancing the survival chances for a patient who otherwise might be forced to wait until symptoms of a potentially life-threatening illness begin to show.
“We have much more sophisticated tools than just asking if you feel OK,” he said.
Such ambitious goals combined with an unconventional approach to health care has invited pushback from members of his industry who question Venter’s methods.
“If you feel OK and don’t have any symptoms, you are deemed by our medical system as healthy,” he said. “So why would we screen healthy people? A lot of people could consider that an unnecessary experience.”
In response to such criticism, Venter said his findings have contributed to the diagnosis of his own skin and prostate cancer.
“I’ve had my life saved twice by such knowledge,” he said.
Ultimately, Venter said he believes in the pursuit of innovations offering people the most information available as part of a mission to administer the best possible treatments.
“Knowledge of your own system, if you have it at the right time, it can save your life if you act upon it,” said Venter.
Amidst such an illustrious career, Venter said he is excited to return home and hopefully inspire the next generation of locals who, like him once, may be struggling in a traditional high school environment.
“I give hope to a lot of parents out there, because there are late bloomers and it’s a matter of having the right context for education,” he said.
Considering the unexpected path his life has charted, Venter said he looks forward to taking a break from work to save the world for a chance to reconnect with the community that helped raised him.
“I don’t know how many of the teachers I’ve offended in life are still around and the policemen have all long retired, so it’s fun in so many ways to go back after all these years under very different circumstances,” he said.
Venter will speak for free at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, to Mills High School students, and later to the public at 6:30 p.m. Visit mhs.schoolloop.com for more information.