Dr Francis Collins Visits ALA

March 13th, 2011

By Ahmed Wahid

On Saturday March 5th 2011, the bees flew in silence, the trees stood in firmness and the students sat in harmony All prepared to listen to what Dr. Francis Sellers Collins sought to tell the next generation of African leaders at African Leadership Academy.
Dr. Francis Collins is an American physician-geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease, genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project. He is described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time”. He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in the US. He has written a book about his Christian faith. He founded and was president of the BioLogos Foundation before accepting the nomination to lead the NIH. In October 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. A working draft of the human genome was announced in June 2000, and he was joined by then US President Bill Clinton and rival biologist Craig Venter in making the announcement. He is known for his close attention to ethical issues in genetics. He has been a strong advocate for protecting the privacy of genetic information and has served as a national leader in efforts to prohibit gene-based insurance discrimination. Building on his own experiences as a physician volunteer in a rural missionary hospital in Nigeria, he is also very interested in opening avenues for genome research to benefit the health of people living in developing nations.
His accomplishments have been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including election to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. He was a Kilby International Awards recipient in 1993. In 2007, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And, in 2008, he was awarded the National Medal of Science. On July 8, 2009 President Barack Obama nominated him to the position of Director of the National Institutes of Health.
More than 100 students enjoyed Dr. Collins’ talk that was limited to only one and half hours. Yet he covered a lot in that time. He managed to talk about his remarkable leadership of the Human Genome Project.  Not only was his talk incredibly intriguing for those who study biology as they got to dive with him into the vast world of DNA and genes but also it was exceptionally amazing for other students to learn about his life journey, including his working experience at a missionary hospital in Nigeria. Dr. Collins proved very successful in getting almost everyone interested in sequencing their genomes when he mentioned that archbishop Desmund Tutu has recently sequenced his own genome.
He pacified the eagerness of those interested in global health by highlighting his leadership of the National Institutes of Health in the US and by giving some examples of the challenges they constantly encounter. There has been a great deal of attention paid to how gene technology could be efficiently used in combating disease, especially in Africa. Yet Dr. Collins confessed that gene technology has not yet been able to treat many widespread diseases but it still has the potential to do so in the future. Scientists have been working day and night for many years to fight various diseases and sometimes they are frustrated by the results. However Dr. Collins stated that frustration doesn’t stop them from continuing what they have already started rather it motivates some of them to work harder.
Students at ALA are always in an intense competition with one another to score better and to achieve high profiles of experience. And thus Dr. Collins wasn’t to escape their questions about his competition with his rival biologist Craig Venter and how he managed to outwork Venter’s team in sequencing the human genome. The one and half hour talk was soothed by Dr. Collins sense of humor especially when he mentioned how Venter’s team, which has some economic interests, took advantage of what Collins team managed to find out about the human genome.
Africa is the focus of all African future leaders at ALA. Thus Dr. Collins was flooded by questions about whether Africa is able to catch up with the health technological advancements that currently exist in most developed countries. Citing his experience of volunteering in a missionary hospital in Nigeria, Dr. Collins wasn’t particularly frustrated by the progression of African countries in the field of health yet he didn’t hide how far Africa is from being on the same level of other developed countries, especially the US. Not only is Dr. Collins a prominent scientist but also it wasn’t until his twenties that he became a Christian only to oppose the atheism concept of which he supported for many years. He has written a book, “The Language of God”, about how he has become a devout Christian only to abandon his life of atheism.
Ten students and two teachers were honored to have dinner with him only to discuss the various arguments he brought about in his books, including “The Language of Life”. Among those students were some future physicians who decided to discuss belief with the support of scientific evidence. Others decided to share their journey with doubt and belief to give the group some insights into how doubt could definitely lead to robust belief. Dr. Collins had a big fish in his plate but he was very interested in hearing about the students’ experiences that at some point his plate was the only one to stay full. Mr. Scudder, a biology teacher at ALA and a close friend of Collins, called the dinner to a close by a group picture of all the attendants.

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