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Superscientist Balances Home Life and Lab Life

July 14, 1986|JEANNINE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

When Caltech scientist Leroy Hood announced last month the development of a new DNA sequencer, a machine that was heralded as a major breakthrough in genetic research, he had only one problem: The press conference was supposed to be in Washington, but it was honors day for his two children at Polytechnic High School in Pasadena.

So he did the only sensible thing. He moved the press conference to Pasadena and went to honors day too.

Which event had more impact on the lives of the Hood family is hard to say; wife Valerie put things in perspective when she said: "It's exciting to share in something that is national news, but you have to realize that there is something exciting happening in Lee's life every day."

A Noted Biologist

Lee Hood, 47, is considered one of the foremost biologists in the country, and the lab he heads at Caltech is known among scientists as the one not to be in competition with.

He holds an MD and is chairman of Caltech's division of biology. Last year he was named California Scientist of the Year by the National Academy of Science for his work on the human immune system.

The DNA sequencer, which Hood still considers to be the "Model T" version of what will be a "Cadillac" in a few years, "reads" DNA molecules hundreds of times faster than was ever possible, paving the way for more detailed genetic research.

But Lee Hood in the biology lab is a different man from Lee Hood at home; when he walks in the front door he is neither superscientist nor superdad, just dad. In the spacious Spanish-style house that is a calculator's throw from Caltech, work is rarely discussed (his decision), and even when it is, it doesn't have much priority.

"Everyone asks me, 'What does your father do?' " said Marqui, 16. She answers the question with a shrug. It's a humbling thought.

An Accomplished Family

His work has had enormous impact on the family, but others' accomplishments hardly go unnoticed. Valerie, 47, also works at the university as associate director of the Industrial Relations Center, working with corporations' management programs. Before that she ran a factory, conducted assertiveness training classes and taught English. Their son Eran, 18, is headed for Harvard next year, and Marqui will be a junior at Polytechnic, a private high school in Pasadena.

Living in an academic/scientific environment has meant some adjustments. Lee worked too late in the lab many nights to tuck the kids in bed; international conferences meant trips to Greece, Germany and China, making them world travelers early on.

"I think Lee was never here for a parent open house," Valerie recalled. "There are lots of things like that I've gone to alone. But on the other hand we have had these incredible opportunities that we wouldn't have had in a more 'normal' life style. I think we realize these (trips) are all very special, rare things."

There seem to be few regrets from Lee, who said, "Life is a series of trade-offs. You have to decide what your priorities are. We have not a spectacular but a quite reasonable family life. We've raised two kids who are wonderful people, productive individuals, and it's worked out quite well. But once you get into doing something you really like, it's hard to stop. I don't view my job as a job. It's what I spend most of my time doing."

No Celebrity at Home

When a new development from the Hood lab makes news, Lee is still not treated as a celebrity. Said Eran: "It's not something my friends pay attention to, international science. They'll see his picture in the paper, but it's not like he's a famous athlete."

Marqui agreed. "We see him when he wakes up in the morning, so we know he's not the supergod that articles make him out to be sometimes. My friends will notice his picture in the paper, but they won't read the article."

Lee Hood maintains he has no burning desire to see his children follow in his footsteps, although Eran says he's toying with the idea of majoring in biology.

Still, there have been subtle influences on the Hood children. For instance, through the years their home has been open to visiting scientists and students from around the world. It's not unusual to come downstairs in the morning and stumble into a stranger happily munching away at breakfast.

And if nothing else, Lee and Valerie Hoods' drive and ambition is something they have taught by example. "I think they should do something challenging," Lee said, "but I think it should be something they want to do, something that's creative and productive, whatever it is."

"That's actually a very strong message in this family," Valerie added. "If you're going to do something, do it passionately."

That edict doesn't appear to have intimidated the children. Eran was named athlete of the year, as well as outstanding math and science student. Marqui is active on the swim and soccer teams, is a peer counselor for Planned Parenthood and is involved with other community-service work.

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