John Rinn was far from a valedictorian at his high school graduation. He had attended four schools in four years, only graduating at his mother’s promise of a car. Back then, skateboarding and snowboarding were the front and center of his life –he only went to college because it seemed like a good excuse to hit the slopes. But as injuries piled up and tied him to bed, he took a biology class; and who knew, that class became an important turning point for him. He realized that not only did he enjoy science, but he also had an aptitude for it. This was how Rinn began to pursue a scientific career, starting with that biology class, through his Bachelor’s in Chemistry, and through his Ph.D in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Today, he is an Associate Professor of Pathology at Harvard University, leading his research group at Rinn Lab to “explore and discover new functional elements in the noncoding genome”.
Despite a relatively late start in his science education, Rinn outran his peers when he proved a vital function of the RNAs, long thought before to be simply DNA’s helper. He pursued research into these mysterious RNA molecules for his postdoctoral work, eventually discovering a novel type of genome regulation involving large intergenic noncoding RNAs (lincRNAs). In 2006, he also discovered a kind of genetic ZIP code that orients and redirects cells, which allows us to better understand why cells behave the way they do.
Rinn has been recognized for his achievements in science through multiple awards and honors. In an interview, he says, “I now see risk-taking science as similar to skating or boarding. ‘Go big, or get hurt,’ as we say. Practicing tricks over and over is like an experiment. Moreover, connecting a series of tricks down a mountain or while skateboarding for a beautiful run is a metaphor to me for connecting various lines of experimental results.”