Cut Bank Native Leroy Hood recognized for a career of defying skeptics

Seattle-based scientist Dr. Leroy Hoodspent much of his career working under a shadow of skepticism – but he’s pretty much fine with that.

“I was confident that doing the technology we did was going to change biology, and I was utterly correct,” Hood told the Puget Sound Business Journal on Monday. “And I was confident that the Human Genome Project was going to be one of the most transformative things in genetic science.”

Hood, the co-founder and president of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, has had a lifetime of scientific achievements. These days he rarely faces the skepticism he dealt with when he was first championing the value of mapping the human genome.

But any remaining doubts were allayed Friday, when the White House announced that Hood would receive the National Medal of Science. The honor is one of the highest for science in the U.S. He will accept the award from President Barack Obama early next year in Washington, D.C.

“It was an enormous honor and I was really gratified to know that I had won,” Hood said. “I think that it’s really unusual, because (the award) is about your entire career and the entire body of work you’ve done and not one particular achievement. So it’s very satisfying.”

Hood is one of those people who has actually changed the world. His discoveries changed the way modern science understands genetics, life and human health.

He was part of a team of scientists that developed four instruments that made mapping the human genome possible. The instruments were the DNA gene sequencer and synthesizer and the protein synthesizer and sequencer.

His work enabled the mapping of the human genome, contributing to the Human Genome Project, an international effort to map the entire genetic material of a human being. Hood was also one of the first scientists to advocate for the value of the project, which was completed in 2003 and continues to be analyzed for future scientific and health advances.

Hood has said scientists can be too conservative about pursuing risky new ideas and tend to resist change. His advice to young scientists is to abandon those shackles.

“If you’re really confident about your ideas, put everything you can into proving they’re going to work and do it,” Hood said. “Don’t listen to the prevailing majority points of view. If you have new ideas, push them.”

That wasn’t ever a problem for Hood, who has helped found more than 14 biotechnology companies, including Amgen, Applied Biosystems, Darwin, The Accelerator and Integrated Diagnostics.

“I was always very confident that my assessment of what was important was correct,” he said. “So I could tolerate a great deal of skepticism and just wondered how long it would take people to realize what was important.”

Valerie Bauman covers nonprofits and health care for the Puget Sound Business Journal.