The Joy of Fake Eureka Moments

Dr. Michael Wigler has made wide-ranging contributions to biomedical research in genetics, cancer, and cognitive disorders. Dr. Wigler attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, majoring in Mathematics, and Columbia University for graduate studies in Microbiology. After receiving his Ph.D., he began his scientific studies at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he continues his work to this day as an American Cancer Society Research Professor.

Early in his career, Dr. Wigler developed methods for engineering animal cells with his collaborators at Columbia University, Richard Axel and Saul Silverstein. These methods are the basis for many discoveries in genetics, and the means for producing medicines used to treat heart disease, cancer, and strokes. Dr. Wigler continued his genetic explorations, and in the early 1980s isolated the first human cancer genes. In the mid 80s, Dr. Wigler and his collaborators demonstrated conservation of cellular pathways in humans and yeast, thereby providing deep insights into the function of the cancer genes.

In the early 1990s, Drs. Wigler and Clark Still developed a method for building vast chemically indexed libraries of compounds, an approach that is still in use for drug discovery. During the same period, Wigler’s group developed the concept and applications of representational analysis, RDA, which led to identifying new cancer genes and viruses. He later enhanced this concept through use of microarrays, a method now widely used commercially for genetic typing.

Dr. Wigler’s research is presently focused on the genomics of cancer and genetic disorders. He expects this work will eventually improve the targeting of cancer treatment and lead to early detection tests for cancer. His studies in human genetics led to the discovery of a vast source of genetic variability known as copy number variation (CNV), and to the breakthrough that spontaneous germline mutation is likely to be a contributing factor in autism. His genetic theories and methods suggest to new approaches to understand many other cognitive and physical abnormalities.

For his fundamental contributions to biomedical research, Dr. Wigler is a recipient of numerous awards and honors and is a member of the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • Transcript


Question: Have you ever been completely surprised by the outcome of your research?

Michael Wigler: Well, science is a very—it’s actually a very difficult field because you need probably above everything else, extraordinary patience.  And what keeps you going is discovery.  And sometimes in a lifetime, you may have one outstanding discovery.  Einstein used to say that he was unusual in that he had had two.  But any one would have been enough to have kept him going.  Most scientists are not in that league, but we’ve all had at some scale things that we’re really very proud of if discover them.  Often, we are looking for them.  The idea that a lot of discovery is serendipitous and accidental is tremendously, tremendously overplayed.  I think it’s much more likely that one sees something, almost in everyday life that puzzles you and you carry it around with you for some period of time, and then you see some way of connecting to it.  You could say our discoveries in autism as an example of that.  At a very early age, I was impressed by this child and later saw an opportunity and I struck when the opportunity was there to satisfy my curiosity.  So, most discovery is of that type. 

Sometimes you see things that you can’t explain.  And I shouldn’t say sometimes, a lot of times you see things that you can’t explain.  And sometimes you come up with explanations that are really exciting.  And 99% of the time, those are wrong and there’s really some trivial explanation of the thing that’s gotten you excited. 

Early in my career I used to hate those things and I used to say, only a manic depressive would love living like this.  You see something that’s weird, you come up with some great encompassing idea that will explain it, it’s going to change how people think, and then the next day you realize that you were really a dumbass.  Nowadays when those things happen, I actually really enjoy them because there are so few real "Eureka!" moments in one’s life that you have to almost have to enjoy the fake ones.  I mean, after all, the feeling is just as good.  So, I’ve actually gotten to enjoy those weird results that we can’t explain, come up with fanciful ideas, and then try to batter them.  And then you get double satisfaction because you end up destroying the idea and it’s satisfying to destroy the idea.  Almost as much fun to destroy an idea as to create one.

Recorded April 12, 2010