Beads of sweat escape from under Jim Roberts' bike helmet as he hurtles past Lake Washington's indigo water. He's on the final leg of a 70-mile circumnavigation of the water body. This intense workout is Roberts' version of a stroll in the park. It's what prepares him for the rigors of his job as a researcher tackling tough questions about cell growth and cancer.
Just as he has learned that serious physical exertion works for him, he came to understand what constitutes good leadership during his five years as head of the Hutchinson Center's Basic Sciences Division. "I don't think people often appreciate how individually directed scientists are," he said, adding that his role was "to make sure nothing got in the way of their pursuit of science."
Granting that freedom, he said, means backing novel scientific ideas—even if, as Roberts puts it, "that research, by definition is the kind most likely to fail."
"If you don't do those things, you never really can make substantial progress," he added.
Whether riding his bike or snorkeling with his family in the remote Rock Islands of Palau, Roberts has a penchant for the road less traveled. In the laboratory, Roberts focuses his research on key proteins that regulate cell division and how alterations in those proteins could lead to cancer. He's a proponent of partnerships between research and business, and he has a long history of founding biotechnology ventures and patenting his discoveries.
Thanks to those endeavors, Roberts donated $1.5 million of his research-application profits to the Center in 2007 to establish the Synergy Fund, which supports innovative, multidisciplinary pilot studies at the Center. He believes the blending of diverse scientific methods can propel research forward.
"My very best ideas come from thinking in a different direction," he said. "There is a lot of interconnectedness to all of biology, so you can start here and end up there."