Did age ever inhibit your trajectory?

For over ten years, Dr. Sarah J. Schlesinger has been actively engaged in HIV/AIDS and HIV vaccine research. She is currently conducting clinical trials to test a new vaccine called ADMVA, designed to stimulate immune responses and thereby prevent HIV from ever being contracted. A graduate of Wellesley College and Rush Medical College, Schlesinger has been interested in medical science since she was a teenager. As a high school student attending a lecture at Rockefeller University, she boldly asked scientist Ralph Steinman for a job in his laboratory.

Schlesinger worked in Steinman's lab just a few years after he and Zanvil Cohn published their famous discovery of dendritic cells. She then went on to head her own dendritic cell lab at Walter Reed Hospital from 1990 to 2002. With new knowledge about the ability of dendritic cells to orchestrate the body's immune response, Schlesinger and her colleagues are attempting to develop customized immune therapies to target specific infections such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and influenza; certain cancers; and autoimmune diseases.
  • Transcript


Question: Did age ever inhibit your trajectory?

Sarah Schlesinger: That’s an interesting question, and no. I loved it from the moment I got there, and one of the things. There are lots of young people in labs. If you talk to many people who are in science, you will find out that they were in the lab from a very young age. We had a colleague visiting from the Massachusetts General Hospital a couple of weeks ago, and he said he started in the lab at 16. And though I was the youngest person, one of the wonderful things was I was treated just like anybody else. I was expected to do my work, and I did it.

And I was included in the discussions, and mostly I just listened, which isn’t my nature, but at that point I was smart enough to know I didn’t really have much to contribute. But as I began to have things to contribute, I was allowed to. And it’s one of the lovely dynamics of even now how labs work. We have young people coming right out of college who work as research assistants for us, with us, for a couple of years before they go to medical school or grad school. And they’re members of the lab. They’re expected to attend lab meeting. They’re expected to read the read the papers.

It’s really, in many ways, an apprenticeship. I think it’s not perceived so much by the outside world, that sort of apprenticeship, mentorship dynamic. Now there were lots of us sort of in various labs at the university who had just come there one way or the other, I guess because of the Holiday Lecture Series. That must have been a way of attracting people as long as it had existed. But there is now a formal program. So we have high school students who come and spend a summer with us, and they do a project, and they’re expected to write it up. I think it’s a wonderful introduction, because I do think one of the great challenges still is how you teach science with its dynamism and the aspects of discovery in a regular academic environment. I think it’s very hard.

Recorded on: June 10, 2008