Fraser, Claire M.
Claire M. Fraser
Research scientist and biologist
Born November 5, 1955; married J. Craig Venter (a scientist), 1981. Education: Graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1977; State University of New York at Buffalo, Ph.D, 1981.
Addresses: Office—The Institute for Genomic Research, 9712 Medical Center Dr., Rockville, MD 20850.
Research instructor, SUNY Buffalo, 1981-83; cancer research scientist, Roswell Park Memorial Institute, 1983-85; researcher, National Institutes of Health, 1985; named vice president of research, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), 1992; named president of TIGR, 1998.
Claire M. Fraser, Ph.D, is president of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), a non-profit research institute based in Rockville, Maryland, which is also the leading microbial genomics institution in the United States. Washington Techway dubbed Fraser "the quiet revolutionary" whose career has been "spent quietly bucking tradition, pushing boundaries, in search of answers."
Fraser was raised in Saugus, Massachusetts, where her parents were educators. The daughter of a high school principal and an elementary school teacher, she was interested in science from an early age, which was reinforced by dissecting frogs in high school biology. "I guess it was the idea that was presented that the human body is really a beautiful machine, and this gave me an opportunity to see all the parts, see how they fit together, get a sense of how they might work together," she told Washington Techway's Rob Terry. "To see all of this before me was just enormously exciting."
Fraser had originally planned to enter medical school, but in her senior year of college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) professor Lenore Clesceri introduced Fraser to the possibility of using her skills in scientific research. She also became Fraser's mentor.
Fraser graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor of science degree in biology, summa cum laude, in 1977. Barry Martinelli, an RPI hockey player who dated Fraser for several years, said she was not the typical scientist. "She had an unbelievable memory and had a passion for science and research," Martinelli told Paul Raeburn in BusinessWeek. "She'd go to the hockey games and go to the parties, and then go back and hit the books for 48 hours straight. Scientists tend to be very rigid. She isn't like that."
Fraser met J. Craig Venter while attending the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY) and working on her thesis. Her thesis committee had expressed grave doubts about her intent to study receptor proteins using scientific techniques based on immunology and tissue culture. Venter, who was her lab director and an assistant professor at the time, encouraged her. "It was important for me because I found that I wasn't intimidated enough by my thesis committee to back down, when I suppose that could have been an option," Fraser told Washington Techway's Terry. "I think that was a very important lesson early on, and I learned it from Craig, that you should not be afraid of taking new approaches to try and get at a particular problem. I really consider that a tremendous gift I was given."
She received her Ph.D in pharmacology from SUNY in 1981; the same year, she and Venter married. Together, they worked on several projects, including continuing to work on the biology of G protein-coupled receptors. From 1981 to 1983 Fraser was a research instructor in the biochemistry department at SUNY Buffalo. From there she went to the Roswell Park Memorial Institute as a cancer research scientist for two years. She continued her research on receptors at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1985.
When Venter left the NIH to found TIGR in 1992, Fraser followed as she had been frustrated in the tenure process while at NIH. She was named TIGR's vice president of research. Her first work in genomics was examining genes in human tumors to try to better understand tumor development on a molecular level.
Her marriage and gender have reportedly skewed the perceptions about her professional ability. She dismissed the criticism. "Other than having outside people use this against us or against me somehow, I was never apologetic or embarrassed by the fact that Craig and I have had a long and very successful working relationship," she told a writer for Washington Techway. "It's been enormously rewarding to have the opportunity to actually work with my husband. And I don't think I need to make any apologies for that."
She succeeded her husband, who is now Celera Genomics Corporation president, as president of TIGR in 1998. Among the genetic decoding and analysis completed since her appointment as head of the institute are those of various bacteria responsible for diseases such as Lyme disease, syphilis, tuberculosis, meningitis and many others. Of the 65 microbial genes decoded as of July, 2002, TIGR was responsible for about half of those.
BusinessWeek's Raeburn said, "The work has put TIGR at the forefront of the new field of microbial genomics—the foundation for the treatment and prevention of disease in the 21st century . Fraser has focused TIGR's efforts on microbes, mostly those that cause disease. Such research is critically important in the quest to develop new drugs. Most current drug research is based on discoveries made in the last century."
Its first success was in 1995 when TIGR staff unraveled the sequence for Haemophilus influenzae, which causes childhood ear infections and meningitis. "It was a landmark—the first time researchers had deciphered the complete genetic code of a free-living organism," wrote a journalist for BusinessWeek. Each year following, Fraser and her staff made significant inroads on discovering the causes of disease including Treponema pallidum, which causes syphilis, Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera, Chlamydia trachomatis, which causes chlamydia, and Streptococcus pneumoniae, responsible for pneumonia and meningitis. In 2002, TIGR examined the anthrax strain used in the bioterrorism attacks in Florida.
"We have more completed sequences available today than anyone would have predicted five years ago," Fraser told a writer for BusinessWeek, "and it's going to be enormously important to have this comparative information to help figure out all of the biology that's going on. If you think of the diversity of life on this planet and what is not represented in any of the genomic databases so far, you quickly realize how much there is for us to still understand."
The TIGR staff doubled between 1998 and 2002 to 325 employees, about 30 of whom had Ph.Ds. The budget for the institute is based on winning research grants from organizations including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. This amounted to about $50 million in 2002 compared to $24 million in 1998.
Fraser was named one of Science magazine's "Hot Scientists" for 1999-2000. She tied for third along with Michael B. Eisen of University of California, Berkeley, Josef M. Penninger and Tak W. Mak of the Amgen Institute/University of Toronto, Antonio Lanzavecchia with the Basel Institute of Immunology, Andrew Wakeham of the Amgen Institute, and TIGR colleague Owen White as one of the most cited scientists during the period. Science attributed this to greater interest in genome sequencing.
"If public recognition has been slow in coming, scientific recognition hasn't," commented Business-Week's Raeburn. "Fraser has published 130 papers and serves on numerous scientific committees, NIH review boards, and editorial boards. She is one of the few women to run a major research institute. That's more than most scientists achieve in a lifetime."
Fraser has reportedly even thought about returning to school. "I'd like to relearn physics," she told BusinessWeek. She also ticked off other interests including nanotechnology and landscape architecture, leading to that publication's opinion that "Fraser is one of those uncommon individuals with a broad intellectual curiosity about the world and how it works. That, more than anything else, may explain her success."
BusinessWeek, July 1, 2002, p. 84.
PR Newswire, September 21, 1998; May 15, 2000.
Science, March 9, 2001.
Scientist, June 2, 2003, p. 13.
Washington Techway, September 17, 2001.
—Linda Dailey Paulson