Dr. Sarah Schlesinger
Associate Professor, The Rockefeller University

Seeing and Teaching Science

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Seeing how science works is essential to understanding how science works.

Dr. Sarah Schlesinger

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.

Question: How do you benefit from teaching science?

Sarah Schlesinger: I love teaching. I love being able to use my skills to communicate to somebody else what I am passionate about, what I think is important, and see that moment when it clicks, the ah ha moment when you explain something and like, oh, year. And I love that. I also feel, I guess, and as I said, I’m getting older, the sense of whatever I do is finite. I can work hard. I can get a lot done. I’m a busy person. But when you teach, you go forward. You help others to go forward to do work that’s important. And that’s really a wonderful feeling.

And one of the things that I’ve learned from my mentor, and this is actually a great story about Ralph. Ralph is very demanding, very demanding, wonderful, kind, but demanding, most demanding of himself. And when I was working at the RAIR [ph?], at some point, usually he would send you something and it would get. You would send him something and you’d get it back in less than a day, and he would be bothering me because I would be slow because somebody had gotten sick and was vomiting at home, or I had some other responsibilities. And so where is the manuscript? Where is the data? Whatever. But for some reason at this point I wanted something back from him. Perhaps I was, I don’t know, preparing it for publication. And I wrote to him.

I said, you know, could you get me back whatever. And he writes back to me. He said, “Don’t you understand I am advising 200 scientists around the world.” He said, “I’m working as fast as I can. I’ll get it to you tomorrow.” And I wrote back, “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to rush you.” But it was sort of epiphany for me that not only was it his huge accomplishment in this discovery, but it’s his ability to mentor and help teach. I mean just teach is the best word, all of these people and keep them moving forward in some sort of coordinated or sometimes not so coordinated way. So when you teach somebody, it’s like pennies in heaven. It’s going forward. So that part’s cool.


Recorded on: June 10, 2008