From cattle rancher to genomics pioneer
Michael Waterman rose from humble beginnings on an Oregon ranch to become a pioneering computational biologist whose work was integral to the human genome project. Photo by Peter Zhaoyu Zhou.

From cattle rancher to genomics pioneer

A trailblazer in computational biology, USC Dornsife’s Michael Waterman, recently elected a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, got an unlikely start in life. [5 min read]
Susan Bell

Growing up on an isolated livestock ranch in southwestern Oregon, Michael Waterman worked grueling hours. When he wasn’t in school — an hour’s journey away by bus — he was tending cattle and sheep, repairing fences and putting up hay for the winter.

“That’s all we did. That was life. It was very constrained. There were some 500 live births a year on that ranch, and you were doing the same things year after year in the same way. Electricity came when I was in the fourth grade. There weren’t things to read,” Waterman said of the rural childhood he spent on the ranch his grandfather had established in 1911. He documented those early years in a self-published 2016 memoir, Getting Outside: A Far-Western Childhood.

It was an unlikely start for a man who is widely regarded as a trailblazer in computational biology and whose career has taken him around the world, bringing him national and international recognition. Waterman, University Professor, USC Associates Chair in Natural Sciencesand professor of biological sciences, and mathematics at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, makes no bones about his relief at leaving those early years on that remote ranch far behind.

Photo of Michael Waterman as a child on a horse

Michael Waterman grew up on a ranch in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Michael Waterman.

“The reason I’m here is that — to get away from that life,” he says. “It inspired me to find a way to make a living that was somewhere else, that wasn’t too boring, and where there might be some outdoor things I could do. That was my total goal in life.”

His father, whom Waterman describes as “a pretty severe task master,” expected his son to continue in his footsteps, but Waterman’s mother encouraged him to go to university. For Waterman, it offered a longed-for escape route. At Oregon State, where he majored in mathematics, he couldn’t get enough of the abundance of learning now available to him.

“There wasn’t much that didn’t catch my imagination. I took graduate courses in philosophy. I took tons of lit classes. I was fascinated by literature. It was just like going on a roller coaster of knowledge. It was incredible”

After earning his Ph.D. in statistics at Michigan State University, Waterman joined Idaho State University where he taught mathematics. He spent summers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he first became involved with researching genetic sequencing.

Waterman’s research concentrates on the creation and application of mathematics, statistics and computer science to molecular biology, particularly to DNA, RNA and protein sequence data. He is co-developer of two fundamental algorithms used for mapping the human genome: the Smith-Waterman algorithm for sequence comparison and the Lander-Waterman formula for physical mapping.

Of the many honors he has received for his work, the most recent is his election as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), an honor bestowed on a small cadre of academic inventors. Waterman was honored for demonstrating “a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development and welfare of society.”

Far-reaching career

“Frankly speaking, it’s a humbling honor and completely unexpected,” Waterman said of this, his most recent fellowship — he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering — adding, with characteristic modesty, that he doesn’t think of himself as an inventor.

The NAI clearly didn’t agree, noting in its announcement of his fellowship that he “invented the sequence-analytic approaches that ignited computational biology and bioinformatics and propelled a revolution in molecular biosciences, biomedicine, forensics and genealogy. His accomplishments and remarkable reach span the mathematical and biological sciences, and computer science. …”

Waterman puts it in more unassuming terms. “One thing I think I helped with was to pave the way for people with lots of math, statistics and computer science skills to really take this aspect of biology seriously,” he said. “Evolutionary biologists had been doing this sort of thing for a long time, but genetic sequencing was a new direction.”

Waterman conducted the majority of his research at USC Dornsife, which he joined in 1982 at the invitation of celebrated mathematician Mark Kac. Waterman particularly enjoyed the sense of academic freedom he was given, allowing him to pursue the research interests of his choice and build a strong interdisciplinary team. In addition to his appointments at USC Dornsife, Waterman is also professor of computer science at USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Photo of Michael Waterman as a toddler with dog

Waterman as a toddler on the ranch. Photo courtesy of Michael Waterman.

His career has taken him across the globe, particularly to China where he developed strong academic relationships with fellow researchers at two of the most highly-rated institutions in his field: Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he started a chair professor team, and Fudan University in Shanghai where he is a distinguished professor.

In 2013, he was a recipient of the People’s Republic of China Friendship Award — the Chinese government’s highest honor for foreigners who have made exceptional contributions to China’s “economic and social progress.”

His international impact can be seen in the fact that in addition to being a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences he is also a member of the French Academy of Sciences and holds honorary degrees from Tel Aviv University and the University of Southern Denmark.

A new direction

Waterman’s current focus is taking his original work in aligning genetic sequence information and revising it, using the new method of alignment-free sequence analysis, which has a more statistical approach to cope with vast volumes of data.

“That’s the great thing about this stuff,” Waterman says. “New things come up and it may involve going fully in different directions, which is great.”

His advice to students interested in becoming an inventor? Be flexible and keep on learning.

“Learn on!” Waterman says. “That’s my mantra.”

What makes him happiest, he says, is understanding something he didn’t the previous day.

“Those moments are the high points, when suddenly you think, ‘Ah, now I’ve got it. I understand this.’”

But for all his academic success, Waterman still considers “getting off the farm” to be his greatest achievement.

“I’m serious,” he chuckles. “After that, it’s all gravy.”