First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Eugene Wimberly Myers Jr.
Eugene Wimberly Myers Jr.
What Award did you receive from IEEE?
Fran Allen Prize
Place of Birth
Where did you grow up
My father worked for Exxon (called Esso back then) and we lived in a variety of countries in Asia, in order: Calcutta, Mumbai, Indonesia, Yokohama, Japan, and Hong Kong. We returned to the US for my last two years of high school.
Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession
My father was a CPA and spent a career as a financial executive with Exxon, Marley Co. and Torro. Both parents had bachelor degrees. My mom was French, met my father right after WWII (long story), and was a traditional housewife albeit she loved and studied the culture and language of all the places we lived, especially Japan. She was a docent at the Nelson gallery in Kansas City in her later years. My older sister had some college but got married and raised kids. She's tragically already gone, COPD. My younger brother, in rebellion to my father I think, went blue-collar and has painted cars for a living. He is a master sharp-shooter and has competed at the national level.
What did you want to do when you grew up?
I went through phases: doctor, scientist, mathematician. I studied Grey's anatomy when I 10 or so and learned about cell biology from there :-)
What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?
Small familly and my sister was 4 years older and my brother 5 years younger, so our worlds didn't overlap much. We moved every 2-3 years to a new country. New school had to make new friends every time. Taught me to learn to fit in quickly, and that there are many ways to live and view the world. Community and a sense of belonging are things I have sought out as an adult. This upbringing did make me, I think, flexible with a broad range of interest and an appreciation for different cultures.
Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)
I have engaged in a variety of sports throughout my adult life. The phases were: racquetball, long distance running, rock climbing, scuba diving, and currently tennis. I have
Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?
Interesting, not sports, that didn't start until graduate school. I was a photographer in high school. I went to Caltech for university and there were few activities there.
Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?
I painted houses my last couple of years in high-school. I poured concrete one summer in college, and after that back breaking experience, got a part-time job as a programmer :-)
Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips? Favorite holiday/family gathering?
Yes, to the US to see family (and play tennis). Thanksgiving as it is the least commercialized holiday and I like the point of it: giving thanks.
EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?
Science and mathematics. At university I fell in love with computer science, and in grad school algorithm design.
Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?
French: I just never though I had any capability and because I skipped a grade I came in 1/2 way through and never caught up. When I moved to German 10 years ago, I made a concerted attempt to learn German and discovered that I actually loved it and regret that I spent most of my life avoiding it.
Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?
I wanted to go to a great science and technology school. My dad pointed out that Caltech was the hardest to get into (you had to have perfect math SATs), so I took it on as a challenge :-)
Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job
I moved the the ranks from assistant to full professor at the University of Arizona. I'm currently a Director of the Max Planck Society (although I am stepping down April 1) at the Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. I've had numerous jobs, I've liked them all. The most exciting job I ever had was, of couse, at Celera Genomics where we built the whole genome shotgun assembler to reconstruct the fly, human, mouse, and mosquito genomes.
Has your career turned out as you expected?
Better really. I was quite content being a faculty member at Arizona. But then the opportunity to prove that whole genome shotgun would work at the scale of the human genome at Celera arose, and that exciting period and the fact that I was successful there changed the trajectory of my career. I was prepared to seize the opportunity but lucky that it arose.
Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?
I don't have an exciting answer alas. Its just been a mainstay of our field like the ACM and SIAM journals.
You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?
On a personal level, its very nice to be reminded that I did a few good things, especially as I move towards the end of my career and leave my last "big" job. On a professional level, I am pleased that work in computational molecular biology was recognized as I think that ultimately computer science is about its application to science and society. I worry at times that the field is to inward looking. And as I mention in the next answer, I am particularly happy to be co-receiving the award with Webb Miller.
What other associations have helped you in your career?
Honestly, I don't think the associations have helped me. Its been down to individual people who have mentored me, worked with me, and supported me, especially at critical times. One of the reasons I am very happy to receive this award is because it is with Webb Miller. If Webb hadn't stepped into my life and mentored me in the early stage of my career I might not even have gotten as far as becoming tenured.
Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?
Know yourself: learn who you are, understand what motivates you, what makes you happy, what kind of situation you should avoid, etc. While obvious, the point is do you spend any time thinking/meditating about that? Why not? :-)
Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?
Honestly, I don't think my younger self would have listened or believed it :-) I would have advised to not worry too much about whether you were any good or not, and to try to enjoy each day as fully as possible.
Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?
Almost everyone thought the whole genome shotgun assembly strategy Weber and I proposed in 1996 would never work. I continued to work on it regardless and when in 1998 Celera Genomics was formed, I seized the opportunity to prove it would.
What career achievement are you most proud of?
Without a doubt the design and construction of the whole genome shotgun assembler, I and my team built at Celera Genomics to assemble the fly, human, and mouse genomes. While there was a lot of controversy around the result, everyone follows our paradigm today.
Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?
Scale model building and tennis. Walks with our dogs. A fine meal always hits the spot.
What personal achievement are you most proud of?
Hard to describe, basically, I'm happy that the experiences and forces in my life have kept me relatively humble and grateful for the life I've had and that I've become a more calm and caring individual as the years have passed.
Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?
I love spicy Chinese, Thai, and Indian food. I do not cook, no time :-)
Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?
I played the piano reasonably well when I was young. "In memory of elizabeth reed", the Allman brother band, performance at the Filmore East upon it closing (1969?).
Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.
My laptop :-) I've been lucky to live in some beautiful places -- I don't own them, but I do prize the experience they afford.
What are three things people may not know about you?
1. My "earthy" hands are capable of very fine scale modeling work, and playing the piano with an emotive touch. 2. I am very introverted 3. I actually don't like traveling (despite doing it all the time (before COVID that is)).
Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)
I've had several: my mother, Webb Miller, Craig Venter, Kai Simons in that order :-)
What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?