Dr. Thomas Vondriska and his colleagues are studying how genetic and environmental factors interact to cause cardiovascular disease. Their mission is to discover the basic biological principles of chromatin — the material of which chromosomes are composed — and lay new foundations for the future development of therapies and cures. Dr. Vondriska steps into the U Magazine spotlight.
Probably when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old. I was only allowed to watch PBS when I was growing up, and I spent a lot of time watching Nova and National Geographic and shows where they constantly were exploring outside. I would watch these shows, and I always had this question in my mind, “How did the scientists ever figure out all of these details? How did human beings come to know this much about the natural world?”
My father. He was not a scientist, he was a civil servant, but I spent a lot of time with him outdoors, and he taught me to be driven by curiosity and to accept our ignorance as human beings.
In the middle of the woods somewhere, as far away as possible from any cell service.
The environment of collegiality and creativity that has been fostered in my lab. That is something I am very proud of.
I’m pretty analytical and philosophical, maybe at times to a somewhat obnoxious degree.
Creativity. Curiosity. Perseverance. Humility. If I were to rank them, creativity and humility have to be tied for No. 1.
Honesty. Colleagues who are honest and give candid feedback I find extremely valuable. There’s also self-honesty. We all struggle with allowing our egos to be broken down to the point where we can understand whether or not what we are working toward is driven by a thirst for knowledge versus a thirst for recognition. If we can be honest with ourselves and recognize what really is motivating us, then we can be open to honest feedback and criticism. If we could get less ego and more honesty into the scientific discourse, it would really allow discoveries to move forward more quickly.
This is going to sound maybe too earnest, but something that I find myself saying is that nothing worth doing is easy. It is like JFK said, we go to the moon because it is hard. That is something that maybe defines the American spirit in a way. I certainly hope so.
I think that is for other people to judge.
People who are able to define for themselves what success is and pursue it and not let anything or anyone dissuade them from that. I have met people like that throughout my life, in all kinds of different fields and professions, and I gravitate toward them.
When I’m asleep. Otherwise, I would say that there’s no time when I don’t have the potential for some thought to cross my mind. I can compartmentalize, and I can disconnect, but I think one of the privileges of a career in science is that I get to think about these things all the time, if I choose to do so.
Maybe I’d write the “Lexington” column for The Economist, or maybe I’d be a park ranger or a professional cyclist.
A belt buckle from Philmont scout ranch in New Mexico, which I went to twice when I was in high school. It basically was a 10-day outdoor experience, during which you carry everything you would need on your back. It was a very formative experience. The buckle reminds me of that and also of scouting in general. I met all of my closest friends from childhood through scouting.
I’m a Luddite when it comes to technology, and I worry about what kind of dystopian world my children might find themselves living in where we’re so dependent on technology, where meaningful human interaction and creativity are supplanted by narcissism and consumerism and a loop of instant gratification. I really do think that it is changing who we are as human beings, and in a not productive way, and I am concerned about it.
I sometimes think there’s something wrong with me in terms of my disconnect from modern pop culture, but I pretty much dislike all of the superhero movies, with the possible exception of Heath Ledger’s Joker character in The Dark Knight Batman movie. The one movie character I maybe relate to is Jason Bourne. The whole idea of this man who has amnesia but amazing survival skills, and who has to figure things out as he goes along, is a good analogy for the human experience.
I am very motivated by the belief that the work we are doing could someday have a real impact on patients with cardiovascular or other forms of disease. I’m also very motivated by the idea that some of the things we’re studying in the lab could have general applicability and could help define new basic mechanisms of biology as they relate to the function of chromatin.
Freedom, and knowing what to do with it.
Not having anything good to read.