HIS FINALIST PROJECT: Geologic mapping of rock layers in Wyoming

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: Though Leroy Hood grew up in Shelby, Mont.—where the local high school didn't offer calculus—his father's position as an electrical engineer with the Mountain States Telephone Company gave Hood a chance to take the company's circuit engineering course. Hood's grandfather was also active in Montana's scientific community. He managed the Beartooth Geologic Research Camp, where students and professors from various colleges would come for the summer.

In high school, the younger Hood worked with a team to map a Wyoming anticline—a geologic formation featuring layers of rock that bulge up out of the earth—that contained that most commercial of geologic features: an oil field. Hood was able to figure out what was going on inside the anticline by studying and measuring what was on the outside. Hood entered his results, which showed what had led to the buildup of oil in the anticline, in the 1956 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist.

This was a big deal. "Shelby, Mont., had never had anything like that happen before," he says. "When I left to go to Washington, the high school band came down and played." He took a train to the east coast by himself and was immediately floored by the sophisticated city children he met. The biggest thing he got out of Westinghouse was "realizing that being around really smart people is challenging, intimidating—and enormously intellectually invigorating."

THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: So that he could stay around smart people, Hood went to the California Institute of Technology, then to Johns Hopkins University Medical School (where he became immersed in the new field of immunology, the study of how the body fights bugs and other invaders), returning to Caltech. There, he divided his time between studying proteins and DNA and figuring out how to map and work with these molecules more quickly.

Over the next few decades, Hood and the smart people he worked with developed, among other things, a protein sequencer, which tells scientists which amino acids make up a given protein; a peptide synthesizer, which puts those amino acids together to form proteins; and an automated DNA sequencer, which gives scientists the genetic letters that spell out a given gene. The last was particularly critical because it allowed scientists to gather information much more quickly.

By the time the DNA sequencer made the Human Genome Project possible in the late 1990s, scientists were mapping genes at thousands of times the rate that they had done two decades before. In 2003 Hood was awarded the $500,000 Lemelson–M.I.T. Prize for "his vision and inventions, which have permanently influenced the course of biology, and revolutionized the understanding of genetics, life and human health," says Merton Flemings, faculty director of the Lemelson–M.I.T. Program. Four years later, he was elected to the Inventor's Hall of Fame.

Hood wanted to bring his new technologies to market, but he and the universities he worked at couldn't come to terms. "They're used to doing what they've always done," Hood explains. Ultimately, he decided that a truly cross-disciplinary research institute would have to exist on its own. He co-founded the independent Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) in 2000.

WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: ISB focuses on "big science" projects like mapping the genes of families prone to prostate cancer. To recruit families, for example, Hood appeared on Larry King Live with prostate cancer survivor Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. One of the core beliefs at ISB is that medicine will become more and more personalized, with people sequencing their own genes and pharmaceutical companies developing drugs for groups with certain genetic characteristics. "It's utterly inevitable," Hood says. "You can argue whether it will happen five years or ten years from now, but it's already starting."

And when it does, ISB will be reaping the rewards, says Hood, who lined up support from venture capitalists to create a project called The Accelerator. In exchange for access to cash and ISB resources, ISB gets an equity stake which, in time, will build an endowment.

It's a different business model than the usual academic one, but because Hood learned as much about science from the telephone company and a geology camp as he did in school, he knows that progress is not the province of academia alone. "My fundamental philosophy is that you owe it to society to transfer to them any knowledge you have that might be useful," he says.