Dedicated to Improving Health
Interview with IdeaConnection problem solver Thomas Hodge
By Paul Arnold
Thomas Hodge worked in infectious diseases for more than 20 years, primarily at CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). His lab was one of the first in the world to do PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and he was one of the first scientists to make use of high throughput sequencing technology that determines genomic sequences quickly.
In this interview he talks a little about his career highlights, how he thinks as a scientist, and his involvement in a successful tech scouting challenge.
They were looking for a way to stop rust in plants. Okay it’s not the rust that you get from when a car rusts out. Anyway there was a company I was talking to at the time. They do a whole bunch of different things such as producing natural products for flavors and that sort of thing. And just in passing the CEO mentioned to me that they had something they felt would deal with rust in vineyards. This conversation was a total coincidence.
About a week later I saw the announcement from IdeaConnection so I picked up the phone and called the CEO to see if his technology would be applicable. He said he wasn’t sure but would go and check. He got back to me pretty quick saying they could do it and so I submitted this to IdeaConnection and it was successful.
Tell me a little about your background and motivation as a scientist.
Basically I like to look at things differently. I do a lot of reading on current technologies and where things are going. And I think in terms of, well if it works in this way, what about using it for this? I am always thinking out of the box.
I also pay attention to friends and colleagues that I’ve cultivated over the years and we talk a lot and share ideas. At the moment we’re working on something that looks pretty interesting. It’s a way to make omega-3 using basic microbiology. You probably know omega-3 is a very important compound and when omega-3 levels are too low, the body, particularly in fetal development doesn’t develop properly. This can cause neurological damage. This is a huge problem in Africa.
So we think we can go there and set up something with micro algae plants that can grow in fresh water or salt water and give people the omega-3 they need. You know there is just not enough fish to go around (a good source of omega-3). If you’re in sub-Saharan Africa you’re not near the sea. If you look at their diet it’s mostly carbohydrates, a little protein and the wrong kinds of fats. We hope we can set something up that will allow people to feed themselves.
That sounds fascinating. Your career has been characterised by problem solving in one way or another. Do you have any particular highlights?
I think the idea of looking at viruses from a different perspective. Everybody thinks in terms of attacking the virus. But there is no cure for a virus. The best we can do is prevention. Once you get a virus, you either suffer until it runs its course, or it’s with you forever, or it will kill you. There’s just no middle of the road with this stuff. So I think one of my biggest contributions was trying to figure out a way to look at the viruses from the host cell’s perspective.
I started out in medicine because as a kid I had heart surgery. I was ten or eleven and it affected me emotionally and mentally. I was a kid in a children’s hospital at Emory University and at a young age I was seeing all these kids suffering. Some kids didn’t make it out. I was one of the fortunate ones. And that made me think in terms outside of myself. You know there’s more to life than just making a buck. I became mentally and emotionally connected to improving human beings I guess.
The biggest choice I had was deciding whether to go into the ministry believe it or not or into science. I picked science and I guess I’m happy I did it. But as far as you know pointing at one thing, I’ve sort of enjoyed all of it.
When you make discoveries what does the eureka moment feel like?
You just don’t know how good that feels. One example I can give you is when we shut off a cellular protein called Rab9. It’s a factor that viruses need to reproduce in a cell. And by knocking it out we prevented Ebola virus from replicating, and the cell survived. Nobody had ever seen that before. At this point in time only you and God know it. It is an incredible feeling and then you say, well I guess we need to publish this. But at that one second when you realize what’s happened, after all the days, months, and years of work, it’s very satisfying. And it’s probably a good thing that it doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens enough to keep you in the business.