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Francis Collins & Deb Liu | Live from Silicon Valley

Deb Liu, the CEO of Ancestry, and Francis Collins, the previous director of the NIH and leader of the Human Genome project, delve into the fascinating world of genetic science, exploring its implications on our understanding of human identity, ancestry and health.


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Deb Liu, the CEO of Ancestry, and Francis Collins, the previous director of the NIH and leader of the Human Genome project, delve into the fascinating world of genetic science, exploring its implications on our understanding of human identity, ancestry and health.

Description

Deb Liu, the CEO of Ancestry, and Francis Collins, the previous director of the NIH and leader of the Human Genome project, delve into the fascinating world of genetic science, exploring its implications on our understanding of human identity, ancestry and health. Throughout the conversation they also share stories and reflections on how their Christian faith motivates their work and sheds light on the ethical and moral considerations that arise when navigating the complex world of genetic research and its applications. 

The episode was recorded in front of a live audience in San Francisco in late April 2023. 

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  • Originally aired on May 11, 2023
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. The conversation you’re about to hear brings together two people from opposite sides of the country, one from the heights of the business and tech world in Silicon Valley, the other from the heights of the science world in Washington DC.

Deb Liu is the CEO of Ancestry. She came onto our radar when she published the book Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women At Work with Zondervan. We thought genetics might make an interesting topic of conversation with Francis Collins, since Ancestry is the largest holder of personal genetic information in the world. And in full disclosure, I’ll tell you that my own genetic information is in their database, as a couple of years ago, for Father’s Day, my family got me one of their DNA testing kits. Because they know I’m interested in my family tree, as all good Stumps should be, right?

Before Ancestry, Deb was at Facebook where she became a vice president, leading the development of Facebook Marketplace, which also, in full disclosure, I should say that I’ve used to sell a dining room table and to purchase an upright base. So thanks to her for making that possible.

Many listeners will know Francis Collins, who I’m happy to say has been our most frequent guest on the podcast. But for those who don’t know, Francis led the Human Genome Project and he was appointed by three different presidents to lead the NIH, which recently included coordinating the heroic efforts to develop safe and effective vaccines during COVID. Now, he’s a special advisor to the White House on science.

We talked with Deb and Francis a bit about each of their own stories, about the current state of genetic technology and what it can do for us and about being a Christian in the high-powered worlds of tech and science that they work in. This was a really remarkable occasion. We recorded this conversation at the home of a significant biotech entrepreneur working in the field of genetics with many other biotech engineers and leaders in the audience. We talked to the CEO of the largest holder of personal genetic information and the leader of the Human Genome Project, and they’re all Christians.

At BioLogos, we’re convinced that Christians need to be part of the national conversation about important topics, like our use of genetic technology. This was a pretty good start. Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview

Stump:

Deb and Francis, welcome to the podcast. I think this is going to be fun talking with the two of you about genetics and what it’s like to be a Christian in the worlds that you run in. But first, as we always do on this podcast, we want to get to know a bit of your story. Deb, let’s start with you. You’re now the CEO of Ancestry. Is that what you always wanted to be growing up? Maybe give us a few of the highlights of growing up in the career path you thought you were on and how you ended up in this position.

Liu:

I grew up in a small town in South Carolina and I could never have imagined being here today. In fact, I think maybe if you had asked me three years ago, I couldn’t have even imagined myself here today. It has been a huge honor to be at the helm of this company, but it’s so much. It was just the journey that I’ve been on. I grew up in a family of faith. My mom and dad immigrated to America. My mom went to what is now Calvin University, Calvin College. She became a Christian.

Stump:

In Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Liu:

Yes. Where she became a Christian, and my dad became a Christian when he had met her. We just were raised in the faith. I grew up in a small town though. I was born in New York and at six years old, they said we’re moving to South Carolina, a place I’d never heard of and where no one looked like us. We joined a church there and we were the only Asian family in our town. It was just really alienating growing up in a place where you were just different from every single person around you. People would come up to us and say, “Go back to where you came from.” I would say, cheekily, “New York?” They’d say, “No, where you really came from.” “No, really, I’m from there.”

I think being different reminds you that when you’re told that you’re different all the time, that you come back to your faith as an anchor, which is, that is a place where it was safe. But our church actually didn’t accept us as members, so we joined a Southern Baptist church. My parents were not accepted as members. We became Presbyterians overnight. I grew up in a Presbyterian church and they embraced us. We were part of that family for many, many years and it has been an honor to be a part of that. And even to this day actually, the church, Menlo Church is previously the Presbyterian church.

I went to Duke and had an opportunity to study engineering, and then went on to consulting and to Stanford for business school. I just stumbled into a career in tech, and I see it as a huge blessing in that I went to a table and it was a startup called PayPal. A few 100 people and they said, “Do you want to interview?” I thought, “Well, why not?” I think so many times, God leads you in places you just don’t expect. I ended up with an amazing career there at PayPal, eBay. And then a call came at Facebook, I went there for 11 years. And another call to a company called Ancestry.

Stump:

Very nice.

Liu:

That’s how I got here today.

Stump:

Go back a little bit more and think about … You did an undergraduate degree in engineering. This is BioLogos, so I’m contractually obligated to ask you something about science in your background here as well. What do you remember that drew you into scientific course of study to begin with?

Liu:

Well, first, my dad was an engineer and my sister was studying engineering. She was studying chemical engineering at the time at Georgia Tech. I thought that’s what my dad always told us we should do. I got to engineering and I thought, “I want to do this.” I remember entering my first physics class and there were three, four, maybe five girls in it and it was like 70 people. People said girls don’t study engineering, but I knew that this was what I wanted to do because I loved engineering. It was like design. God’s design is so specific and so beautiful. I saw that and I wanted to do that and I wanted to understand that. That’s what led me to it.

Stump:

Do you ever remember feeling any tension between your religious faith growing up and science, and studying science and understanding the world through that lens?

Liu:

I didn’t because I just saw design, design of engineering and how beautiful that was in the design of the world that we lived in. I was just thinking. My kids talk about how much challenge they have today navigating faith in the world around them. At the time, it never occurred to me because it was so obvious that the world was created by somebody, and that I could understand that design and I could design something within that world. Because God gave me the capability to do so. It was never a tension for me. Today when they come home, they went to a summer program, they said, “People are really hostile to what we believe. Can you explain to us why they’re asking us these questions?” They’re 16, 14, 11, and these are really questions that we’re struggling with today. And part of that is what we talked about a little earlier, which is, I think right now, there’s a lot of tension and polarization with faith and politics and also science. We’ve seen that in the last few years, especially with COVID as well.

Stump:

Yeah, for sure. Well, we’ll come back to some more of these themes about being Christians and being in scientific worlds. But Francis, let’s turn to you a little bit. Listeners of the podcast can hear an extended version of your story on the very first episode we ever did. We won’t rehash all of that now, but let’s at least take a little glimpse into your life. You grew up in a family that was more interested in music, in the arts, than science. How did that affect you and how did you end up pursuing science for your career?

Collins:

Yeah. I grew up on a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. My father was a college professor. My mother was a playwright. They started a summer theater in a grove of oak trees up above our house, which is about to have its 70th consecutive season. My father was a violinist who became a fiddler because he loved the traditional music, as I have learned to love as well. I was surrounded by this. I didn’t go to school until the sixth grade because my parents thought they could teach me better than the local schools. They were probably right, but none of it was about faith. They weren’t denigrating faith, but they weren’t interested in faith. My interest in science was a little later in coming. When I finally did go to public school, I had this wonderful blessing of a chemistry teacher in 10th grade who got me excited about what science is all about. It’s a detective story.

It’s like you have these tools called experiments and you have mysteries that you can figure out. If you play everything right, you get answers about how the universe is put together. Why wouldn’t you want to do that for the rest of your life? That was me. I became a chemist, wanting to be a chemist. Went to undergraduate at UVA, majored in chemistry. Went to get a PhD in physical chemistry at Yale, and then discovered I missed out on biology. I was like, “Oh, there’s another kind of science.” Yeah. It’s messy and complicated, but boy, it’s really interesting. DNA went out and grabbed me and then I figured, “Okay. Now, what do I do?” I was already married. I had a small child. Am I really going to change course? Yeah. What the heck? None of this is a very linear pathway.

I decided to go to medical school and that was a big commitment. Off I went to the University of North Carolina and arrived there and found really, this was my calling. This was science, but it was about people. It was this sense of promise, particularly about genetics, which was the natural place for a guy to land who loved digital information, well, that’s DNA, and who wanted to study life, and that’s medicine. Let’s put it all together. I arrived there, however, as an atheist. I left medical school as a follower of Jesus. So, what happened there?

Stump:

Yeah. Your conversion story is pretty dramatic, and there’s a illustrated version of that that we’ve put on the website, complete with a cartoon Francis. You can see this story.

Collins:

Not a very good likeness, I might say.

Stump:

But you’re prompted by an elderly, dying patient who shared about her faith and then asked you, “What about you, Doctor? What do you believe?” This moment has had such a profound impact on you. I was wondering how to get you talking about this in a little different way than I’ve heard before.

I wondered, it seems like such an insignificant moment in some ways of somebody just asking a question that had such a profound impact. I wonder, have you ever thought of how your life might have gone differently if she had not asked that question? Do you think you were on the path to becoming a Christian anyway, or was that really a—

Collins:

It’s a great question, Jim, and I don’t think I really am sure about that. If I could go back and have parallel universe where she didn’t ask the question, what would happen would’ve happened?

Stump:

What would’ve happened?

Collins:

I think I was feeling uneasy. There I was. When you’re a third-year medical student, you are now out there amongst very sick people, sitting at their bedsides, as part of a team and realizing a lot of these people have terrible illnesses that you’re probably not going to be able to cure. Yet, you’re watching them and you’re thinking, “Suppose that was me.” I could see that, “Okay, I do not have a lot of time left. How would I deal with that?” I was troubled about that. Facing the potential of immediate death is something you don’t have to do a lot of until you’re a third-year medical student, unless you’re in some other unusual setting. And then you can’t look away. You can’t basically ignore the fact that some of your science answers aren’t helping you much.

She just brought it all into this bright light moment, frozen in time. I can see exactly where she was and where I was. She said, “Doctor, I’ve told you about my faith. You haven’t said anything. What do you believe?” Simple question. How many times have all of you been around somebody who was struggling, or maybe not struggling, and simply asked that question? It’s pretty threatening, I suppose, but it’s the most important question there is. Can you think of another one that matters more than that? “What do you believe?” Here I was, a scientist who was supposed to have good answers, and I had nothing. That sent me off on a journey of trying to understand how believers could come to faith without sacrificing their intellectual rigor, because that was really important to me.

What I discovered over the course of a year or two, with a lot of help from C.S. Lewis and a bunch of other deep thinkers, was actually that is the most logical conclusion for somebody with intellectual rigor is to see that there must be a God behind this incredibly beautiful, complex universe. It also doesn’t make sense in terms of what I know about my shortcomings, if I can’t have relationship with God, and I don’t know how to do that, unless Jesus steps in and takes all of my imperfections and makes it possible for me to have that relationship. All of these things I had heard and run away from for my first 27 years about, “you need to give your life to Jesus. You need to be born again.” What is all that? Suddenly made the most perfect sense.

I know what it means to be washed in the blood, something that I never would’ve imagined could be meaningful. Not just meaningful, but profound in my own life.

Stump:

The power of that question, that simple question that she asked, is really interesting. Deb, you and I, when we first met in the coffee shop down here in Palo Alto, you told me that you wear this cross and I should have checked to make sure you’re still wearing it. You said you always wear this cross and it’s led to some of those kind of conversations as well. I wonder how you think of that, the power of a really pretty simple testimony that could have a profound impact on other people. You’ve had that experience yourself.

Liu:

Absolutely. One of the things is, in Silicon Valley, faith is a very dicey topic, talking about it. I had a friend who actually, she’s a woman of faith. She’s on a board with me. She said, “I always quote my mother,” which she told me, “‘We are witnessing every day, and only sometimes do we use words.'” I just think about those profound words. She lost her mother recently and she said those words gave her comfort because every day we’re living, we’re a testimony to what we believe. Every day, every word, every moment. They look at you and they look at what you’re doing, and then they look at that cross and they say, “Do I want more of that or less?”

One of the things I share when I talk about this is, I read the story about how Gandhi went to a church and they treated him really badly. Somebody said they heard him say, “I would be a Christian, but I met other Christians.” Think about how profound that is, that every choice that we make is actually touching other people’s lives for good or for bad. This is a reminder, I started wearing this cross when my now-husband gave it to me when we were dating for six months, and I’ve never taken it off, other than our wedding day, which I wore pearls, when my mother insisted that I wear the family pearls.

I have worn it every day, and it’s an opportunity for other people to decide whether or not they want to ask me. Many conversations have opened up because of that. They say, “Can you tell me about what you believe?” It has been an opening. I’ve been on stages all over as I speak and people reach out to me and say, “Hey, I don’t talk about my faith, but it’s really great that you’re up there.” It is an invitation to a conversation, and it has led to just wonderful relationships and connections that I never would’ve had otherwise.

Stump:

Well, the providence of God working through such moments as those is a fascinating topic, but let’s turn to something different, genetics, if we could. I want to recognize the significance of this conversation that’s about to happen here right now, given that we’re in Silicon Valley, we’re at the home of a pretty significant biotech entrepreneur who works with genetics. We’re talking with the leader of the Human Genome Project and the CEO of the largest holder of personal genetic information. We’re all Christians, right?

Too often, Christians have been accused, perhaps rightly, of not leading or even being in significant conversations of cultural importance. I don’t want to make more of this than it is. We’re not setting our nation’s policy here right now, so far as I know, but it’s pretty remarkable. I’d like to get the two of you in particular talking about this.

Francis, if you would, start by giving us a little context from the Human Genome Project, what you expected might come from that in terms of application of genetic information. And now, two decades later, what your assessment is of how genetics has been applied. And then Deb can join into this and just the two of you get talking a little bit about how Ancestry is using genetics, what it can and can’t tell about our family’s origins and where all this might be headed. The two of you, take off for a little bit here.

Collins:

Yeah. This will be a lot of fun. Yeah. It’s interesting we’re having this conversation in April of 2023. This is a anniversary, a double anniversary. It’s 70 years since the publication of the double helix. That was April 25th, 1953. And it’s 20 years since the completion of all the goals of the Human Genome Project, which was April of 2003. There’ve been various DNA Day parties that have been happening as a result of this. A lot of these questions are being asked, Jim, about, okay, how is this working? Does this compare with what you thought might happen once the Genome Project really did achieve its goals? By the way, ahead of schedule and under budget. I always have to say that.

I did a lot. I even went back and looked at some of these talks I gave 20 years ago about what we might expect to happen over 20 years. I think the first law of technology turned out to be true. You wonder, what is that law? Well, it’s that, when a significant advance happens in technology, you always overestimate the immediate consequences and underestimate the longer-term consequences. There were people who said in 2003, “Well, when you go to your doctor next week, it’s going to be all different.” And that was not going to happen. We had these three billion letters of the code, but we didn’t know how to read it. We had a lot of work to do to get there.

But now, where we are 20 years later has gone way beyond anything that I would’ve put forward as possible. Maybe I’ll just mention three areas.

Stump:

In what ways?

Collins:

Cancer. You got to look at what’s happened in terms of our ability to completely revolutionize our understanding of cancer. Cancer is a disease of the genome. It happens because of mistakes in the DNA of a cell that caused that cell to grow when it shouldn’t. It’s now become the case that if you have a cancer that develops today, you want that cancer to have its genome completely sequenced so you can know what the drivers are of that malignancy and choose from the many options, the ones that are most likely to fit your need. That’s precision oncology, precision medicine, precision health. It’s all about precision. We could never have done that without what the Genome Project has made possible.

I’m excited about the way in which this has also revolutionized our opportunity for therapy for rare diseases. We are going to see, maybe in the next few months, the FDA will approve the cure of sickle cell disease. The first molecular disease, people who have had that disease have languished for decades without getting a whole lot of attention to the horribly wrenching, painful experience they have. And now, because of the ability to understand this, and even to use CRISPR, which is this wonderful way to do, for the right purposes, pretty remarkable things, figure out how to cure people with this disease.

But I got to say, and it’s not just because Deb is sitting here, I think for the general public, the way the genome has had most impact in their lives is by finding out how this can teach you about who you are and your ancestry, your geography. My three grandchildren just found out that they were one-quarter Ashkenazi through their father’s line, and he didn’t know this either. There was a big, dark, uncertain past there. This is just in the last couple of months. Boy, has that opened up an interesting family conversation that never would’ve happened without this kind of capability.

I could go on about the brain because Bill Newsome is here. I got to talk about the brain and the way in which the genome has also opened that up by allowing us to do single-cell genomics, where you can say, “What are you doing, you particular cell?” You don’t have to mash everything together and look at big chunks of tissue. You can look at one cell at a time. It’s all profoundly transformative and much more dramatic than I would’ve guessed 20 years ago.

Stump:

Deb, jump in here and maybe even give us a little bit of the overall pitch for Ancestry and why you’ve jumped into that. But then connect it particularly to the genetics work and how that has transformed the family tree business.

Liu:

Yeah. Well, ancestry is a 40-year-old company and has been around. Started publishing books actually on genealogy to help people do their family trees. It’s become a tech company over the last 15, 20 years and really launched consumer DNA in 2011, 2012. It was an opportunity for people to really discover parts of themselves they never knew, and that’s what’s really incredible. The reason I was attracted to this role was, we have these family stories and history and not everybody knows that. There are dark parts of people’s histories for different reasons. Families come, they lose track.

What attracted me was, at a time when we’re really polarized, when people are just on opposite poles, you realize the human family is way more interconnected than you can ever imagine. And that’s what drew me to this role was that. You hear all these stories, but so many people don’t realize just how much the human race is connected to each other, that you have family that don’t look anything like you. It’s because we have had this opportunity to build a community and yet we often we’re attracted to the things that are very seeable, like the people we know.

But this actually connects people with people they never knew about and learn about history that you never knew about as well, and really uncover stories about your family. As consumer genomics has come to where it is today, we really help people discover a lot of stories and history and experiences, whether you’re somebody who’s adopted. We get a lot of stories where they said, “I never knew who my original family was, and this has opened so many doors for me.” I’ve never been to a party where somebody didn’t say, “Okay, I have a story to tell you.” And I heard the story.

Someone told me a story tonight and I love that, about being a part of this company, because it changes people’s lives. It opens their world and they see so many different things, and so it’s been a huge honor to be a part of that. I was just going to say, when I met Francis tonight, I said, “When I was in college, I remember my dorm mate came back and he said he had spent the summer with Francis Collins as his intern.” He said, “This is the most exciting thing to happen.” We’re actually sequencing the entire genome. I went back to Duke this past weekend and walked by the dorm and I thought about what he said. I think it was 1995 when he interned for you.

Collins:

Yeah, that would have been right.

Liu:

Yes. Just to be here, coming full circle and meeting you finally after so many years, and seeing just how it’s really opened the world to so many new things and opportunities, both, whether it’s treatments, as well as just discoveries by yourself.

Stump:

Well, connect the dots a little bit here between the Human Genome Project, under time and under budget, as you say, but it took a long time and it took a lot of money. What’s the difference between that versus now when I spit in the test tube and send it off to Ancestry? What are they doing there? How are these—

Collins:

It’s astounding when you think about that first genome that we completed in 2003, it cost $3 billion, took 13 years. You can now get your complete genome sequence for roughly $500 in about 48 hours. I don’t know any other technology that has advanced that rapidly over the course of time and spun off all kinds of incredibly important consequences. We’re fortunate to be here in the home of Randy and Eileen Scott, and companies like Invitae have had this opportunity to take that information and provide benefits to people about their own health. Never could have happened without that technology.

But of course, again, the thing that most people have heard about themselves is really more the Ancestry. Of course, you don’t have to sequence all 3 billion letters to have a pretty good sense of what people’s geographic origins were. You can infer that from a somewhat more limited set, which means it’s really even cheaper, which is good.

Liu:

Well, you can access a DNA kit. It’s like $100 now and you can get it, you can get it sequenced, you mail it in. We process it. We can process it in just a few weeks. It’s really incredible, going from $3 billion in 13 years to something which is so available. You can do this today.

Collins:

You don’t usually get to do something faster, better, and cheaper. You have to pick two out of the three. In this case, you get all three.

Stump:

What do you expect is coming down the line in terms of genetics for Ancestry? What would you like to be able to tell from people’s DNA that we’re not yet able to, or what’s the future of this technology for you?

Liu:

Well, one example is something we recently launched, which is your parental inheritance. Before, we would tell you what your ethnicity is, but you couldn’t tell which side it came from. Now, we can actually look back and say, “You have one parent where this side of your family came. This is this part of you and this is another part of you,” which is really incredible and something that we never thought was really possible for a long time ago. Just to see that.

Now, we’re looking at traits, so human traits. We actually do surveys where we ask you, “Are you a napper? Are you introverted?” We try to infer based on that whether or not you are in various places. It is really fascinating to see what is embedded in your genetic code and what we can discover. We would love to continue that innovation over time. And as we get more genomes in our database, we actually can continue innovation because you need enough datasets to make it possible.

Stump:

How accurate is that, to tell whether I’m introverted or a napper?

Liu:

It’s derived, but there are some things where there’s specific genes for that. A lot of things are inferred through large sample population.

Collins:

It’s statistics. There’s something called a polygenic risk score—

Liu:

He knows this better than me.

Collins:

—which is a big deal. For things like diabetes or heart disease or Alzheimer’s, where you don’t have a single gene that drives yes or no, oftentimes it’s dozens, maybe hundreds of genes, each of which has a tiny, little effect. But your risk is going to be the sum of all the risks that you happen to have in each of those genes. You can calculate that in something called a polygenic risk score. Get used to that because you’re going to start to hear about that, maybe even as part of your own preventive medicine idea about how to keep yourself healthy.

We have wasted way too many people’s times with one-size-fits-all prevention, which people find it very easy to ignore because it doesn’t sound like them. The plan here for the future is precision health, where, based on your genome sequence, your environmental exposures, your health behaviors, and a long list of other things that have an effect, you get a much more precise recommendation. Here are the things you should be paying attention to. Here are some. Eh, maybe you don’t have to worry about that one so much. Polygenic risk scores are going to play a role there that I think we’re just starting to see emerge.

Stump:

Let’s talk a little bit about the commercial angle on genetics. 10 years ago in particular, there was a lot of discussion of whether specific sequences could be patented and the Supreme Court ruled, “No, you can’t patent these.” I know you worked pretty hard during the Human Genome Project to keep this from being privatized.

Collins:

Keep it all away. Right. Put it in the public domain.

Stump:

But here we are in Silicon Valley, and I think it’s appropriate to talk a little bit about the engine of capitalism, which is not all bad. Maybe talk about the promises and perils perhaps of the way big business can help to push some of those applications you’re talking about, and what we really need to be careful of in that, you think.

Collins:

Well, I think our patent laws, which Ben Franklin had a lot to do with, were basically put in place to try to make sure if there was a discovery that was going to benefit the public, that there was a protected interval to develop that actually into a product where the public could benefit and there wouldn’t be unfair competition along the way. Because otherwise, there would not be an incentive to do all that development. I think the argument that the Supreme Court bought into was, the basic human genome sequence is not a product, but things that could be developed from that could be product. I think we’re in about the right place now.

If you have a observation about a gene that is connected to a product that the public is going to benefit from, then that could still be an appropriate place to seek intellectual property. But the fundamental foundation, it’s our shared inheritance. Come on, people. That should not be something that somebody owns. For a while, it looked like that might be the case, and a lot of people worked really hard to turn that around. I give a lot of credit to the ACLU. They got engaged in that in a very productive way. I sat in the Supreme Court when that debate was going on amongst the nine justices.

Till today, I will not forget, and you could tell where they were going, and the decision was nine to nothing.

Stump:

It was unanimous, right?

Collins:

Nine to zero.

Stump:

Yep. Are there any particular applications of this at Ancestry to be concerned about or aware of?

Liu:

No, I think the bigger thing is how companies actually do make it possible to lower the cost, if you can commercialize something.

Stump:

Right.

Collins:

Sure.

Liu:

You can take the cost because now, you’re actually amortizing it across large populations of people. You’re actually doing marketing to bring people into the database. I think companies play an important role in actually commercializing science, so that it can be accessible to more people. I think it’s not an either/or where it’s science or business. It’s actually how these things go hand-in-hand to actually lower the cost from billions of dollars to something that you could afford to give as a Mother’s Day gifts, for example, which is coming up. I think what—

Stump:

Everybody knows. [laughter]

Liu:

We have a Mother’s Day sale coming. But actually, the thing that I think is very important is, really, how do we help people understand? A lot of businesses, a lot of the marketing we do is actually helping people understand what you can discover. Driving people to understand what could be possible, and then helping them. Building a product around it where you have an experience, where you can connect with other members that you might be related to, where you can look at your parental inheritance and see what you got from which parent, even if your parents have passed away. These are just really powerful things that we can … Just like faith and science, we talk about science and business. It’s also a really important marriage that I think that we should not shy away from as Christians.

Stump:

Well, let’s talk about another potential concern around genetics, which is privacy and information. There were some interesting crime cases a while back where there was DNA evidence recovered, but the investigators didn’t know who it belonged to. But then some close relatives of the consumers have done these public DNA tests and they were able to find the person.

How should we think about privacy for cases like this? And particularly as we get closer to personal genomic medicines where it’ll be routine that we all have our entire genome sequence, not too distant future, what does that do for privacy? Should we be worried about that?

Liu:

One thing is, first, it’s against our terms of service to upload unknown DNA. We actually do fight when law enforcement reaches out and says, “Hey, we want access to your database.” It is against our terms of service as well, and it’s an important part of what we do. We do work in a consortium with other folks in the industry, like 23andMe, to ensure that these laws around genetic privacy are strong at the state level. It’s something that we continue to be a part of because it is really important for people. Privacy is a part of our product. You can take the test, and by the way, you can choose to delete your DNA immediately after you get your results. You can—

Stump:

You really do delete it? It’s not hidden in a room?

Liu:

We really do delete it. We do.

Stump:

All right.

Liu:

But you can also say, “I don’t want matches. I don’t want other people to be able to match with me.” It could be a solo experience or it could be a community experience. We actually make that available and you have consent around that as well. I do think that people need to be comfortable with their data, and I think that is an important thing. We’re built into the products that we build. We need to think about that upfront, and that isn’t something that’s been a hallmark of our company.

Collins:

The Genome Project, from the very beginning, recognized there were going to be ethical, legal, and social issues associated with this reading out of our own instruction book. That hadn’t really been done before for a big science project, had anticipated the problem before the crisis was in front of you. A lot of these conversations with lawyers, with ethicists, with public policy people, had a chance to be pretty mature by the time it was necessary to do something.

We have the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, GINA, in the US, signed in 2008. It says your DNA information cannot be used against you in employment or in health insurance, which was a big concern that people had. In terms of preventing misuse of this, which some people will disagree about, but in law enforcement, darn it, you really shouldn’t have your DNA sequence used to implicate your cousin unless you decided that was something you wanted to make available.

You did a little advertisement about Mother’s Day. I’m going to do a quick one about a project called All of Us. If you have not already joined All of Us, what is this? This is a plan to enroll one million Americans in a long-term prospective followup of how your whole genome sequence, which you get as part of this, your environmental exposures, your health behaviors, you answer a lot of questions, a lot of other measures are done in the laboratory and you’re a partner in this effort. We’re up to 600,000, so there’s still time. JoinAllofUs.org is how this goes.

We’re in deep conversations about how to protect people’s interests and not having the information that they’re sharing, which includes their medical records, which researchers have access to, but has to be done in a way that is anonymized, so that these people are not put at risk. So far, that has gone pretty well. There’s also a clause in there about law enforcement not having access to that information. Because with a million people, which is where we’ll be pretty soon, that would be very tempting. But that’s not what this is about. I want the bad guys to get caught too, but not this way.

Stump:

New topic. Deb, you’ve written a book, Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work. What’s the reality of women at tech companies, in Silicon Valley these days, or maybe when you started, and has it changed for these days? Are these days better days?

Liu:

Well, it’s really interesting. One of the things I noticed is, when you’re in school, everything is fair. Women are actually getting more of the college degrees, they’re doing better in school. You get out into the workforce and you realize … We are very naive. There’s a sense of mastery. You feel like you’re hanging with the boys. And then you get out into the workplace and it’s completely different. It doesn’t hit you until the first time it really hits you, and nobody tells you.

There’s a stat I use in there from McKinsey that I lean in, where it said, “For every 100 men promoted to management, 86 women are.” You look at professional jobs, that’s just the reality. Nobody goes to the 14 women and say, “Well, it’s because you’re a woman.” It’s just the unconscious bias. It’s the way the workplace is structured. It may be personal choices that people make along the way that actually feed into this.

The first chapter is really about that playing field, why we feel this way, where it feels like women are not getting ahead, where they’re not making it into the C-suite. They’re not getting advancement. They’re not getting opportunities. A lot of it is unconscious bias. It’s not overt discrimination, and it’s really about all of the ways that our society makes it just a little bit harder every little step of the way until you have a massive disparity at the top.

Part of the reason I wrote this book is to say, “Look, I see you and I see these stats. If we all just understood them, then we can say, ‘Well, what are we going to do about them? What can we do collectively as well as individually?'” Part of that is also, how do we actually help people get through that process to say, “You know what? It’s going to be a little bit harder, but here are the things you can do to bend that curve. Here’s how you can take back your power in the circumstances that you do.”

I walked into a CEO conference. It was 250 CEOs and there was like 11 women, and I was the only woman of color in the room. I could choose how to think about it, which is, I don’t belong here, which I felt a lot of that growing up. But then I said, “You know what I am? I could say it, I’m first.” Next year is going to be a second and a third and a fourth. If I show up well here, they will invite more. They will want more women in this position. The next year, there was a second woman of color and there were a few more women.

I think over time, we are going to make a difference. But it takes showing up and really owning that space and saying, “You know what? We can be there and we can be who we are.” We can be proud mothers and sisters and parents and all of those things and still also have a successful career in tech and in other environments.

Stump:

It matters what other people do as well. Francis, I remember you were in the news a few years ago for saying you are no longer going to participate in manels. Can you tell us what a manel is and why they’re bad? What’s the reality of women in the high-powered science world at NIH and what have you done?

Collins:

Well, there’s very much a similar problem in academia that Deb describes in industry, where we have lots of women who are now coming through PhDs. But then when you look at what happens in terms of promotions and being in leadership roles, there’s a significant drop-off. And it’s not just the pipeline, it’s clearly there is a bias in making that happen. It occurred to me that if there was one thing that some of us could do trying to change that is to change the whole complexion about how we present ourselves. I had been on so many of these sessions at major scientific meetings where they have the panel of the people who are going to give forth about what’s really new and exciting, except it was all men. So it wasn’t a panel, it was a manel. Or some people call it these himposia. “Let’s go to the himposia.”

That’s a small thing, but I basically said, “Okay, I am not going to take part in any of these invitations to come to a major scientific symposium if you don’t have diversity on the panels that you’re putting forward and in the list of your keynote speakers.” Because I know there’s all kinds of talented people out there, but there’s this old boy mindset about, “Okay, who are we going to get? Oh yeah, that person.” You repeat the same invitations over and over again, and they’re mostly old white men. That’s simply not good for science because we know that diversity isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s how you improve productivity. That’s very compelling. And we weren’t doing that.

It was interesting because then I had to say no to a bunch of invitations in the coming months. Every time, virtually every time, the person would come back who’d organized the meeting and went, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. You’re right. Okay. Okay. We’ll change all this. Would you come if we add this person and this person?” I’m like, “Yeah.” Maybe in a certain way, there was just a blindness to what we were doing, and that’s part of the battle. It’s not all of the battle, but it’s part of it. The other thing I had the chance to do as NIH Director, there are 27 institutes at NIH, which is where most of the decisions get made, and the leaders of all these institutes for cancer and heart disease and diabetes and so on.

When I got there as director, there were three women out of 27. They’re now 13. It was not hard to find talent. It’s just that traditional ways of doing those searches often landed in the predictable ways that they always had. And we can do better than that.

Stump:

I’m really interested in one of the things you said there is that this diversity increases productivity. I want to probe that a little bit because we often tout as one of the virtues of science that it works independently of ideology. The law of gravity is the same whether you’re a Christian in America or a Hindu in India, but we’re missing something when we don’t take in other perspectives.

Deb, there’s even a line in your book that maybe you can comment on this in that regard, where you said, “Much of what women are taught to do is to suppress what makes us different, to fix the things about us that stand out too much or draw too much attention.” How is it that diversity, these different perspectives, it really does increase the productivity of a supposedly ideologically-free discipline like science?

Collins:

Oh, I think you’re mixing two things there. One is science in terms of finding truth, facts. Those facts are going to be facts regardless of anybody’s opinion. Regardless of whether it’s a man or a woman looking at the fact, it’s a fact. But what science is about is not just saying, “Okay, those are the facts.” It’s thinking of new approaches to discover new facts, ideas. Ideas, generally, are limited if everybody who’s sitting around the table has exactly the same mindset, the same background.

They greatly enhance the creativity of the group if the group has lots of different perspectives. Over and over again, you can see that in every field, that’s the case. If you want science to flourish, it’s not just about establishing what we already know. It’s about, how do you learn the things we don’t know? And for that, you need that kind of diverse input to maximize the creativity.

Liu:

I’ll give you an example, which is my family. Heart disease runs in my mom’s family. Lots of people have heart disease, so I read up on this. For many, many years, women were not studied around women and heart attacks and heart disease.

Stump:

That’s right.

Liu:

You think about an entire generation where they only studied men, and women have heart attacks in a different way. It’s something which I pay a lot of attention to because of the hereditary challenges that we’ve had in our family. You read about it and they say, “Well, we didn’t want to have women in these studies because they could be pregnant and therefore we could not test this.” But having women scientists to say, “No, women have different kinds of heart attacks, we need to look out for different symptoms,” is something where diversity brings a different perspective to the table. It is absolutely science to study men and heart disease. But no one was at the table saying, “Well, what about women who are half of the population?”

I think these are the kinds of things when as you build products, you’re choosing where you’re spending time and resources. When the people at the table all think one way, you actually miss out on an entire world of opportunities. I shared a story in the book about how I started Facebook Marketplace, and I remember telling everybody, “We need to do a marketplace here.” I was a mom. I was one of the few moms at the company. I was the only mom in product for many years and I just kept saying, “I buy and sell a ton of stuff,” and everyone’s like, “No one buys anything on Facebook.”

I’m like, “What do you mean? I bought tons of stuff.” It’s because I was in all these mom groups. We traded clothes. You have so much kids stuff. We had three kids. Cribs and toys. I just realized it was a blind spot because the company just didn’t have a lot of moms. We ended up building Facebook Marketplace and it started actually for mom groups who organized around the product. Now, today, it’s used by a billion people. But again, it was a choice. If you don’t have someone on the table who can see a different perspective, just like heart disease, you don’t build the products that could really benefit a lot of people.

Now, it’s not just a product for moms. Obviously, Marketplace is very widely used, but think about what we were missing all of that time because we didn’t have somebody who had that perspective.

Stump:

Well, let’s conclude by talking about another underrepresented group in science and tech, which is Christians. We could just ask, how do we get more Christians into this field? And maybe you want to talk to that at some point. But I first would like to hear each of you talk about what it’s been like to be a Christian in the fields that you work in. Whether there are any tensions between your work and your faith, whether your colleagues perceive there to be any tension between your work and your faith, and how your faith has maybe informed what you do, the questions you ask, how you rely on your faith in your job. Just share a little bit about that, both of you, if you would.

Liu:

Well, for me, what’s wonderful about Silicon Valley is people are very open-minded. But I think that one of the challenges is traditional religion is one of the areas where it’s less open-minded in some ways. People do ask a lot of questions that are somewhat pointed, and as I was saying, my kids hear a lot of questions. They’re not bullied for it, which is great. They go to a very great school. But they are asked a lot of times. It’s like, “You really believe that?” It’s not the overt, “You’re wrong.” It’s not an argument. It’s not hostility. It’s actually, well, haven’t we gone past that? How’s that logical? It’s subtle, and it’s subtle questioning whether or not you can be somebody who’s in the workplace.

You work in tech, which is all about basically data. I’m like, well, how can you believe that and also be data-driven and deliver great products? I think, for me, it’s been an opportunity for me to really examine my faith, too. Because having to stand up for what you believe also reminds you of why you believe it. Because you have to remind yourself often. I grew up in a place where most people went to church and it was just something everyone did. Here, it’s a very different experience where you actually really have to understand why you do something and actually be able to articulate it. That has been really strengthening for me actually in some ways because I have had to challenge myself as well.

Stump:

Did your faith play any role in you deciding to move to Ancestry?

Liu:

It’s interesting. I prayed a lot with my church group that I’m very close to, and it felt like the right place for me at the right time, and it was the right thing for God to lead me there. For each move I’ve made, I’ve had amazing Bible study groups who have been part of my faith community. Each time, they have been the strength of being able to help me guide to the next opportunity. And a lot of that is, is this the right thing for my family? Is this the right thing for my church community and for me as well?

Stump:

Francis, when you were first nominated for the NIH, I remember a fairly prominent person writing in a fairly prominent publication about how the scientific research of the country was going to pot because we had nominated a evangelical Christian to lead it.

Collins:

Who actually believes in the resurrection. Yeah. I’ve had a few of those, although I don’t know that I could complain too much. For the most part, I don’t know, Deb, I’ve not encountered much overt hostility. Maybe that op-ed was a bit of an exception. Mostly, it’s more like this quizzical like, “Really?” Sometimes, behind that is a little bit of an interest like, “Okay. How does that work for you? Apparently, you’re somebody who’s doing science in a credible way, so there must be some way that this is put together.”

Usually, people assume that I must have been somebody who had faith as part of my upbringing. When they find out that’s not the case, that I was an atheist who came to faith in my 20s, on the mostly logical basis, then it really surprises people and they get curious about that. I’m glad for that and glad to have that story if in some way it encourages somebody else to think about that exploration, too, although I doubt that happens all that often. Maybe once in a while.

I’ve been, at least for the last 30 years, pretty open about my Christian faith and not tried to hide that, but I wasn’t always that way. Initially, when I was an assistant professor on the tenure track, it was a little harder to be really out there without noticing the eyebrows going up and figuring, “Maybe I’ll keep that to myself.” But since I’ve been more open about it, I think it has mostly been either reasonably well-received or just ignored. But what it has done, because I am open about it, other people will come up to me and say, “I’m a person of faith working in science as well, and I haven’t told very many people. But I’d love to talk to you.” I have all these relationships of other Christians who are scientists, who are wonderful partners, colleagues, people I’ve learned from.

Here, I got to say, the other thing that has really helped all of us pull together, which is one of the reasons we’re here, is BioLogos. Having a community of people who are really serious Christians and really seriously rigorous scientists who are trying to figure out, how can both of those things speak to each other in a harmonious way and finding there are wonderful answers there. That whole opportunity to be together, which before BioLogos was there, there really wasn’t a meeting place like that. Now, there is for a couple million people who are … They’re not like, “Okay, we have all the answers.”

There’s lots of questions here that don’t have ready answers, but there are options for answers and we can all work through them together. We can think about this as scientists who are also believers that science isn’t just some materialistic thing that we do with one part of our brain. It’s all of what we do. It’s examining God’s creation in a way that I think it’s not too far to say science is a form of worship. You are actually uncovering the amazing beauty and mystery of God’s creation. You’re in the lab, but you’re in the cathedral. You have that opportunity to mix those things together and not keep them walled off in separate parts of who you are.

That’s an incredible gift. The more we can help other people through BioLogos to see that as something that does fit together and that you can keep as a synthetic part of who you are and not feel like you have to somehow protect your science from your faith, they actually turn out to be wonderfully harmonious.

Stump:

Well, amen and amen. I’m so grateful to have people like the two of you in the positions that you’re in and grateful for the work that you have done and will do. And very grateful that you have both spent some time talking to us here tonight. And I ask our audience to join me in thanking Deb Liu and Francis Collins.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors and listeners who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum, or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guests

BioLogos - Francis Collins

Francis Collins

Francis Collins is one of the world’s leading scientists and geneticists, and the founder of BioLogos, where he is now a Senior Fellow. In his early scientific career, he discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis. Then he led an international collaboration that first mapped the entire human genome. For that work he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. In 2009 he was appointed as Director of the National Institutes of Health, where he served three presidents until 2021, including oversight of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022 he was asked to serve for 8 months as Acting Science Advisor to the President, and he continues service today in the White House as a Special Projects Advisor. In 2006, Collins wrote the best-selling book The Language of God. It tells the story of his journey from atheism to Christian belief, showing that science actually enhances faith. The tremendous response to the book prompted Collins to found BioLogos. He envisioned it as a forum to discuss issues at the intersection of faith and science and to celebrate the harmony found there. His reputation quickly attracted a large network of faith leaders, including Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, and NT Wright. These and others joined the BioLogos conversation and affirmed the value of engaging science as believers. BioLogos is now an organization that reaches millions around the world. In celebration of his world-class scientific accomplishments and deep Christian faith, Collins was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2020. It honors individuals who are “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” He joined a prestigious group of previous winners, including Mother Teresa, Francis Ayala, Charles Townes, Desmond Tutu, and Billy Graham.
Deb Liu headshot

Deb Liu

Deb Liu is the President and CEO of Ancestry. Prior to her work at Ancestry she was a senior executive at Facebook where she created and led Facebook Marketplace. She also spent several years at eBay and PayPal. She is the author of the book Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work. She received her BS in Civil Engineering from Duke University and an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.


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