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Dr. Jimmy Lin is a cancer genomics researcher and entrepreneur who founded The Rare Genomics Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to aiding patients and families affected by rare diseases. He also currently serves as the Chief Scientific Officer at Freenome, an AI genomics company, where he’s developing a blood-based test to enable the early detection of colorectal cancer.
THOMAS BURNETT: Jimmy, welcome to our podcast. Thanks for joining us today.
JIMMY LIN: Thanks for inviting me.
THOMAS BURNETT: I want to kick us off by starting way back in your life. Tell me a little about your childhood. Where did you grow up and what did you love doing as a kid?
JIMMY LIN: Wow. From the very beginning, I grew up in Taiwan, 20 some generations in Taiwan we’re very proud to be Native Taiwanese. Come from a line of physicians. Both my grandparents were doctors, and since a since a child, I’ve been very, very interested about science and specifically about invention. I loved people who invent things, first about sort of Thomas Edison and all the inventions he did, and later, you know, in terms of someone like Albert Einstein, understanding the deep mysteries of the universe.
THOMAS BURNETT: Tell me a little bit how your interest developed, maybe starting from math building into life sciences, biology, and then onto cancer research, which you’ve made your career focusing on.
JIMMY LIN: Yeah. As a kid, I was excited about math, but then discovered computers. Back then for a kid to learn computers was not easy. So, I bugged my parents as a second grader to send me to take some community college type level classes locally to learn basic programming. So I started doing that and just sort of fascinated by how, you know, computers can do a lot of the thinking and calculations that I haven’t been able to do by hand and eventually in college to figure out that wow, as biology became more and more quantitative, there became a need for people who were able to use the tools of computation, to understand larger and larger biological data sets.
So, in college I sort of fell into this field called bioinformatics. Which was, you know, at the beginning of this sort of explosion in biological data sets. It’s really using computational tools to be able to understand that data, and that’s really the genesis of my career in the sciences.
THOMAS BURNETT: I imagine there is probably an unlimited number of questions and things you can investigate by studying genomics. Was there a certain moment or situation in which you turned your attention specifically to studying disease or specifically cancer? How did that come about?
JIMMY LIN: Yeah, coming from a medical background, I’ve always been interested in sort of leveraging science to make a difference in healthcare. And then the human genome got sequenced and then eventually I got to participate in sort of mapping the cancer genome. So that got me really excited.
So, during my graduate studies, I was doing my MD PhD at Johns Hopkins, and I literally went to Johns Hopkins to study under Bert Vogelstein, who is pretty widely known as the father of cancer genetics. He was the foundational person that really, really showed that that cancer ultimately is a genetic disease.
I went there really wanting to study under him and was ultimately able to join his lab. And back then it took a lot of effort. We had to sequence chunk by chunk. The whole genome is about 3 billion base pairs. And then we took it, you know, every hundred in sequence at a time. Tens of thousands of these regions. And really this has laid the foundation of how we understand the genetics of cancer, and I was really excited to be in those early initiatives. We really have this sort of systematic mapping of cancer as a disease.
THOMAS BURNETT: I’m a little bit, when I look at your CV, I’m a little bit overwhelmed by the number of different roles you’ve had, the MD and PhD, and so master’s in public health. You’ve worked in university labs. Government supported research, NIH, biotech, I guess more recently. Looking over that period of working in many different places, I wonder if you’ve had really awe-inspiring moments, memorable experiences that, that really stand out to you, that convey something about the excitement and inspiration that you get. To explore the frontiers of knowledge.
JIMMY LIN: Yeah. So, after the human genome was sequenced, my advisor advisor is Bert Vogelstein, as sort of a big idea of if cancer was truly a genetic disease, can we map someone’s genome and then map the genome of the cancer? And look for what’s different. And these mutations potentially could point to causative factors of cancers. And there was a moment of time where I was, was home visiting Taiwan and I’m coming back, and it actually worked out for me not to adjust my jet lag. So, the people were working in the day generating all this cancer genomics data and then I would analyze it throughout the night and then Bert would usually sort of come in, you know, five to six. And then we will talk about the findings. So, it’s pretty cool, like sort of late at night, find myself there sort of analyzing data and a lot of times you get many, many false positives. But there’s also one particular night where we find a gene that seemingly to be, you know, very highly mutated with specific cancer types. That was very exciting. Like, you know what, I’m probably the one of the first people in the world having this look at cancer with a gene called IDH 1 or IDH 2. It’s highly frequently mutated in the type of brain cancers called glioblastoma and other cancers as well. And there’s entire conferences and drug companies that are now sort of investing in this particular protein.
So that was pretty cool to, again the late at night and thinking this is, you know, another finding or not, but eventually it’s just sort of burdening, um, a whole new field. This is actually a pretty unique and special moment for me.
THOMAS BURNETT: So now that you’re well established, the field of cancer research in your particular areas, Friends, family, strangers know this is an area of exploration, of discovery, of development. I imagine that you hear heartbreaking stories of people who’ve discovered that they have cancer, and they maybe reach out to you. Jimmy, what should I do? I wonder how that affects you.
JIMMY LIN: Yeah, like you can imagine it happens a lot, but to the extent where I actually encourage it, I tell family and friends and coworkers that if any of them themselves or their family or friends need any help, always feel free to sort of reach out to me.
So because of that, I do get a lot of sort of inbound requests and I think it, it is heartbreaking, but again, there are many things that we can do about it and, and I think for someone who’s sort of been in this field for a while, I think help demystifying it and says, you know what, like it’s a horrible time, but here’s a plan. There are things that we can do about it and, and we can sort of take our best shot. Provides a little bit of comfort hopefully to the people that, again, I sort of try to help. And then the big thing is, cancer care actually is very, very unequal in its distribution, let’s say that way because it’s advancing so quickly. What is being done in some of the sort of talk academic universities don’t necessarily propagate all the way to the community physician or community oncologist. Commuting oncologists often have a difficulty even sort of keeping up with the literature. And so, I definitely don’t know everything that there is, but I can point people in different directions so they can reach the right experts and feel confident that they’re on the best path of their exists to be able to do that.
And in fact, it’s the same thing that we think about within the nonprofit that I run called Rare Genomics. We do the same thing for families with rare diseases. We’re trying to give them all the resources so they can help their children be able to, again, deal with and, you know, spur on research into the disease that they have.
I really think that science is best when applied, just not to publish a paper in order to get a patent, when it's actually helping people. That's when I feel like it's science at its best.
THOMAS BURNETT: Do you see science being able to contribute to developing a sense of meaning in life?
JIMMY LIN: Different disciplines have different capability to answer different questions. So science is really, really good at solving questions that are repeatable, you can do experiments or you can sort of derive from first principles and you can observe from day to day, but I think it’s gonna be probably very difficult to scientifically prove you know, purpose or what is beautiful, and I think those are sort of more in the realm of metaphysics and philosophy. So, I think science is probably sort of more suited for things that we can observe, things that we can deduce, but it’s probably a little bit more difficult for us to just use scientific methods to be able to derive meaning of life, to figure out purpose, what’s beautiful, what’s right, what’s wrong.
THOMAS BURNETT: After the break, we discuss Jimmy’s spiritual journey and how it connects to his work in cancer research.
THOMAS BURNETT: Are there aspects say, of liberal arts? I’m thinking literature, music, fine arts. There’s certain areas sort of outside your, your day-to-day job where you find, this is where I am able to, on a deeper level, connect with questions of meaning and purpose.
JIMMY LIN: Yeah, I grew up as a Buddhist, and in college, really started thinking through these few questions of meaning and purpose and always thinking that, you know, science can solve everything. And actually, pretty much earlier on, even as a freshman, and quickly exhausted even the limits of scientific understanding as a freshman, and that’s why I ended up starting some of the philosophy, looking at religion, then really exploring the different religions. Ultimately, I felt that Christianity was sort of most compelling to me and became a Christian there and eventually actually even going to seminary and studying theology and these things are sort of beyond science, right? All these questions that potentially, science can answer.
THOMAS BURNETT: Was there an individual person or or set of people who served in any way as mentors or guides or just fountains of wisdom? I kind of wondered how did other people fit into the fundamental issues that you were exploring at a formative time in your life as an undergraduate?
JIMMY LIN: Yeah, I definitely had many sort of mentors. It was a very confusing time for me off to college. For the first time I joined a fraternity. I looked at other religions. I was looking at everything that sort of what was the sort of meaning of life?
I had a great community that was actually initially was a lab partner, but he himself was Christian and introduced to his community and sort of older people who sort of walked this path and that helped me navigate this, but also just supportive people who are willing to debate these, you know, Christians were, were willing to talk to me. They were very sort of gracious and even though I was sort of attacking them, they were willing to listen and, and engage with me very intellectually, sort academically, and ultimately helped me answer a lot of these questions as I explored.
THOMAS BURNETT: I heard you give a lecture a number of years ago, and you described yourself in this public event in DC as a scientific doxologist, which is a term I had never heard said, or even I’ve never even read it before. Could you tell me a little bit about what you meant by that?
JIMMY LIN: Yeah. The word ology means to sort of glorify, right? Is to glorify God in all that we do. There are a lot of Christian scriptures that teach that. And if you think that if there is a perfect being that sort of exists, that’s created the world and cares for the world and that’s the perfect being that sort of would be deserving right of all our attention and affection and that’s what the Christian teaching teaches. And everybody then lives out their worship in different ways in their life. Oftentimes people think standard way is to become a pastor or a minister, but I think since the Reformation, Christians have really thought through, you know, we worship God in our daily lives, whether you’re a milkmaid, whether you’re a baker. And as a scientist, I live out sort of my worship of God through really understanding the world that God has created to understand these sorts of mysteries, all the way from the vastness of astronomy down to the DNA and and machinery. And that’s why I really sort of think of myself as first and foremost as a doxologist and then the way I live out that life as a scientific doxologist.
THOMAS BURNETT: There is such a panel play of options of what you could study and devote your time to, and you told me that the idea that all humans are created in the image of God, shapes the way that you approach those questions of who to serve and where to invest your time. How does a theological concept like that, that I think for many people can be very vague, perhaps even off-putting, how does that practically shape your life and how you serve and who you serve?
JIMMY LIN: Yeah. One of the ways that that sort of combining, uh, my religious belief, right, and my scientific pursuits that, that may be non-traditional, is through some of the work that I do in this nonprofit that I help found called the Radiogenomics Institute. And what we do there is to use all the technologies from genomics and to be able to help mostly children, but patients with rare diseases. And oftentimes, if you sort of think about it in these kids, often very, very young, from a purely pragmatic, utilitarian measure, they actually, you know, ultimately will, will not, no, many of them don’t even learn to speak, many of them are bound in their wheelchair their whole lives, and they won’t, you know, quote unquote, provide value to the world.
For some to think about, you know, why even help these kids. But being a, a person of, of Christian faith and believing that everybody is created in an image of God, no matter how abled or disabled or gifted or non-gifted they are, it makes me think that, again, every child, because they’re created in an image of God as a beloved child of God, is worthy of our love, worthy of our efforts, worthy of scientific ways to be able to help them. So, me and my friends actually, when we first started, you know, all, all three of us being Christian, really thought through that of these children often, you know, may not be as sort of focused on by other sort of researchers, but have such intrinsic value there. What are ways that we can be able to use all the technologies of sciences to help them, help their families to be able to understand that?
So that's one very sort of tangible way where I feel like sort of my faith has really guided me to specific questions that I may not have pursued if I were not a Christian.
THOMAS BURNETT: Looking over your life as a whole many different episodes. I wonder if you would point to. A few of the most transformative moments that made you the person that you are today.
JIMMY LIN: Yeah, that’s a good question. Being in a lab or at the birth of the integration of computer science, and biology and being at that right time really put me at that intersection of using my computational skills to help in biology, which then enabled me to work in such amazing labs with Bert Vogelstein to map the cancer genome. So that’s sort of one big strand where the two areas that I’m passionate about, computer science and biology really sort of came together.
A second sort of very pivotal time is maybe at the end of my sort of MD PhD training and where most people who sort of do this dual track really sort of decide, do we practice medicine? Do we undergo research? What do we sort of do? And I decided to focus on research there and not doing additional clinical work and ultimately put me on this path where I’m from academic research to sort of research in industry, working on diagnostics there, it freed me up a lot to think through technology development in that sense. So, maybe those are sort of two pivotal times that sort of shaped my scientific career.
THOMAS BURNETT: Well Jimmy, thanks for this conversation. That was great.
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