The Gift of the Outlier: George Church on Neurodiversity, Collision of Bad Ideas, and Thinking Visually

July 26, 2022

By Allison Proffitt 

July 26, 2022 | George Church is known for his scientific creativity and willingness to try new approaches. He credits neurodiversity for those skills and the grit they developed in him.  

In the latest episode of Bio-IT World’s Trends from the Trenches podcast, host Stan Gloss, founder of BioTeam, talks with Church about how neurodiversity has shaped his education and scientific career and how a trait they share—dyslexia—leads to some out-of-the-box thinking.  

Church’s narcolepsy condition is fairly well known, but he may not be as readily associated with dyslexia. While he wasn’t formerly diagnosed until his teens, Church says, “I was painfully aware I couldn’t read very well from, I guess, the moment that people started reading. I would compensate in various ways throughout my life and that took some of the sting out of it. I’d just figure out real strange workarounds.”  

Church excelled at pattern recognition, so he learned to identify some key words as images. “I would remember a couple of key words so I could impress people,” he says. And his family made sure he had richly-illustrated books from which to learn including a Time Life Nature Library of 25 books and another 25-book set for Science, “just full of beautiful photographs,” Church says. “I still have both of those collections. I would more or less memorize the photographs, but I’d have to piece together what the story was.”  

Church did ok in school, he says, thanks to his battery of “compensating tricks” as well as strengths in math and visualization and his ability to easily recall anything he learned audibly. But he was “constantly being advised to take outside reading classes.”  

Adjusting—thanks to his brain’s neuroplasticity—was a continual process. “I think my brain just kept rewiring; I think a lot of people’s brains rewire over time,” he says. “I wouldn’t classify myself as a dyslexic today. There are definitely remnants, but it’s not at all like it was when I was growing up.”  

Mental Images 

Beyond school, Gloss points out, we all optimize to the things we are really good at, and Church recounts leaning toward images because that’s where his strengths were. “Because my brain wasn’t getting wired up to get really good at reading the words in nice straight lines and nice block paragraphs, I tended to look at images, especially two and three-dimensional thinking… I just had more time to do that; I had more aptitude. It became a positive feedback loop.”

He enjoyed that challenge of taking a two-dimensional picture and figuring out the three-dimensions behind it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his first published scientific work was in x-ray crystallography, “which was all about spatial symmetries and solving three-dimensional structures.”  

It’s still a strength. Church reports that he can immediately identify the handedness of a DNA molecule and easily imagines how 3-D pieces fit together—either mechanical or molecular. When looking at 2-D drawings, “if I’ve been exposed to the three-dimensional version of it, it folds up in my head.” And he’s continued to make good use of these strengths. Much of his scientific career has been image-heavy: super-resolution microscopy, fluorescent in situ sequencing. “All of next-gen sequencing is imaging, basically,” he quips.  

Resilience and Advantage 

The “dyslexic advantage” is enjoying some attention right now, Gloss points out. Richard Branson recently partnered with LinkedIn to include “dyslexic thinking” as a valuable work skill.  

Church expanded that position. 

“It’s not just dyslexic thinking, it’s thinking in any way differently,” he said. “If you think differently on any axis—if you’re ostracized for any reason—then that means you become more self-reliant, more of a self-starter, sometimes with a little bit of something to prove… When everybody in the middle of the bell curve is stuck on a problem, you’re going to give a new solution.”  

That problem-solving prowess isn’t a feature of the diagnosis, Church points out, but of resilience overcoming adversity and developing agile mental tricks over time. “It could be that a high-functioning autistic, or dyslexic, or OCD could all solve this problem that nobody else can solve, but not because they share some amazing superpower, but simply because they’ve had to learn to think separately from everybody else.”  

When hiring or forming collaborations, Church says he looks for the ability to deal with ambiguity and contradictions. Inflexible thinking, he said, leads to people becoming “quite brittle” and frustrated. “People who are really capable of filling in the blanks and sorting out the contradictions—or just living with them—have some terrific survival tools that can benefit everybody.”  

These outside-the-box thinkers don’t reject ideas according to what is “normal” and expected. He calls it, “the gift of the outlier.” 

The same thing applies in the workplace. "You don’t want necessarily to train everybody in your lab to be as close to the ideal citizen as possible. You just want them to be comfortable enough that they can deal with their diversity. They don’t need to be completely comfortable and completely adapted and completely the same. Maybe just enough so they can turn their superpower on when it’s needed and off when it’s one of those inconvenient moments."  

Trends from the Trenches Podcast  

Bio-IT World’s Trends from the Trenches podcast delivers your insider’s look at the science, technology, and executive trends driving the life sciences through conversations with industry leaders. As host,  BioTeam co-founder Stan Gloss brings years of industry experience in science, data, and technology to conversations exploring what is driving data and discovery, and what’s coming next.   

Catch up on earlier episodes on NIH’s Strategic Plan for Data Science, building AI/ML models for drug discovery, the evolution of supercomputing, digitization vs. digital transformation at Alnylam, AWS’s advice on digital transformation, and NCI’s Commons of Commons approach to data management. If you are enjoying the Trends from the Trenches podcast, please subscribe and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or your preferred podcast player.