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Unusual Career Path Sparked by Stories about Science

Rob Phillips has pursued an unusual career path.

Most scientists walk a well-worn path to their careers – high school leads to college, then to graduate school. Rob Phillips skipped college. Now he’s pushing the boundaries of how we interpret DNA. He’s the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. 

So, how did that career happen?

Phillips can trace his love for science back to one day – April 30, 1977.  

He was a teenager when he went to the house of a friend whose father gave lectures every Saturday night. That evening, the lecture touched on how the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth.

“What he did was put a stick in the sand on two places on the earth and measured the shadow that was cast by the noonday sun,” Phillips said.

“The reason it blew my mind is that up until then, science had been for me more or less a religious act," he said. "People told you facts. I had no use for that. It was about authority. Then I realized it was a relationship between a person and nature. They would ask a question about nature and then figure out a way to answer that question. That really appealed to my desire to make sense of the world.”

Instead of going to college, Phillips worked as an electrician for several years before heading to graduate school. It was only after he already had a master’s degree that he earned a bachelor’s degree by mail.

“In some sense, I’m not suited to be a professor because, if I’m being completely honest, I’m not much of a lover of school,” he said. “We offered our kid money to quit high school, so that should give you some sense of how weird our perspective is on the subject of school.”

What drew Phillips back to institutions of higher learning were the stories of the thinkers who came before. Leibnitz, Newton, Gauss, Maxwell.

“The part of science that I find most meaningful is, what are the stories?” he said. “Of course we have to have data that supports them. But the story has to hold together in some way relative to the facts that you know.”

In his current work, Phillips is using physics theories about telephone communications to look for new ways to interpret genomes. 

“What are the limits?” he asked. “What can you say about how well you can transmit information?”

In this area, Phillips is using a technique he learned from Justin Kinney (Princeton University).

“To figure out which parts of the genome want to tell us something,” Phillips said. “There’s a hidden message there, and we’re trying to figure out what they are telling us.”

Phillips spoke to Living Lab Radio this summer during his teaching tenure at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. He will give a talk there on Friday, July 7, 2017.