Francis S. Collins, the Christian geneticist who led the project to map the human genome, announced that he will be stepping down as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
After serving for 15 years at NHGRI – part of National Institute of Health – Collins said Wednesday it was time for him to pursue other professional opportunities such as writing projects that dealt with the future of personalized medicine. But he admitted that he did not have a clear game plan for now.
"I am going to take a kind of sabbatical for a few months – to write, to reflect, to spend some time trying to identify the next opportunity for service. I am not being coy with you – I do not have a definite plan of what that next step will be," the 58-year-old physician-geneticist told reporters.
His resignation will be effective August 1.
Alan E. Guttmacher, M.D., the current deputy director of NHGRI, will be appointed acting director until a replacement is found.
Collins led the Human Genome Project, which published a map of the human genetic code, to its completion in 2003. He managed other related projects thereafter, including the International HapMap Project, an effort to map genetic features that might shed light on common diseases; the Mammalian Gene Collection; and the Cancer Genome Atlas. He is also recognized for his landmark discoveries of disease genes that cause cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease.
Collins "has been a trailblazer in the scientific community at large," NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., said in a statement. "His contributions to the world of genomics and medicine have been enormous. He has been a tremendous colleague, friend, and brilliant visionary."
In addition to his scientific achievements, Collins is also a frequent speaker at Christian events, where he advocates theistic evolution as a way to reconcile evolution to God's creation story.
In his 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, he said he considers "the experience of sequencing the human genome … both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship."
At the press conference Wednesday, Collins said that while he hopes to continue his participation in conversations on "the interface between science and faith," he will not take up a full-time job in that area.
"My focus, my expertise is in science and I expect that is where I will land."