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Dr. Sarah J. Schlesinger has been actively engaged in HIV/AIDS and HIV vaccine research for over ten years. She is currently conducting clinical trials to test a new vaccine called[…]

Schlesinger’s children have interests that range from physics to theater.

Question: How did you explain to your kids what you do for a living?

Sarah Schlesinger: Oh, that’s a very good question, and I don’t know. As I told you, I have four sons, and so it would have probably been different for each of them, because when my oldest was little, I was still a resident. So I was going back and forth to the hospital a lot, and I was a doctor. I identified at that point in my life. And it’s interesting because I am what we like to call a physician scientist, so I have only an MD. Many people who do what I do have both an MD and a PhD.

But I have only an MD degree. This is probably splitting hairs for most people, but I work at what’s called the translational interface now. So I work doing science that has relevance to human disease and human biology. So a lot of biology is critical basic science, which is by most people and for much of my life regarded as sort of the highest of biology. It’s worked out in yeast and flies and all sorts of odd experimental systems, where you can have access to some very specific area that allows you to see something very clearly, like Zebra fish. People use Zebra fish as a model for a lot of different things, kidney disease. You can see through them and apparently, I don’t work with them, but they’re a very good model for many things. So there are these model systems that are terrific, and we learn immense amounts from them. You can do experiments quickly and you can get an answer published, but they’re not human. And so to find out really about human disease, you have to work in the system. And working in the human system is a different experience, and I feel privileged to be able to do that, because it requires, at least for me, being a physician. And so you were asking about my children, so in my career at various times I’ve done more basic research, more translational research. There was a brief time where I was working primarily as a physician, so for each of my kids, it’s been different at different times, but all of them have grown up hearing about my work everyday. And I think that that’s hugely important, both as a parent, because I think I always felt a little bit of guilt about being away from them for my work.

I wanted them to understand why it was important to me, and why I was passionate about it, because I feel for them one of the things that you hope for your children and for yourself, is to have work about what you’re passionate and you love, and you would do even if you weren’t paid. And so I always talk to them about it, and I brought them to the lab as soon as I could, probably violated 17 OSHA things, but nobody should know, but from particularly my second son, who is a scientist himself now, was very curious, and he was a bit of a behavior problem. And so to leave him with a babysitter was harder than it was to take him to work with me and give him something to do. So by the time I think he was six, maybe even younger than that, I was bringing him with me and giving him journals to pull out all the papers that have this title, or move all of these things over here. Sometimes it was make work. Sometimes it was actual work, but I talked about the ideas and what’s important, and from the time I could speak to them.


Question: Has your love of science rubbed off on any of your children?

Sarah Schlesinger: My second son is a physicist. My second son just finished his freshman year at Harvard, and is preparing to go to Japan on a fellowship. He has the math gene, and he is going to do physics or something like that. I don’t exactly know what, but he’s been formally in the lab since he was 13 working. And as I think I mentioned, that he actually made one of our vaccine constructs for our preclinical studies. He’s a pretty credible molecular biologist, and actually one of my. This gets to sort of the tension of being a working mother. It was often hard. I would call and I would be late, and I didn’t want to be late, and the kids would always be upset if I was late. I tried not to be, and I think I’ve often erred on the side of going home when others might have stayed in the lab. But nonetheless, there were times when experiments just got away from me. You can’t predict how long things are going to take.

He, of anybody, would be the most upset if I didn’t get home. And so the first summer he was in the lab, we were commuting together. But one day he was tied up with something and he said, “You go on home, mom, make dinner, and I’ll come later ‘cause I have to finish this extraction.” So I’m home making dinner, and I get this call from him. He says, “My extraction didn’t work. I have to set it up again, ‘cause if I don’t do it now. It was Thursday. I’ll be here over the weekend, so I’m going to be really late. So do you think you could save dinner?” I said, “Yeah. I think I could save dinner.” But in that one moment, there was this realization of I felt that he understood on some level all of those times and my absolute frustration in getting out. So he’s a scientist, and he was doing biology, and I think he was thinking of doing systems biology until his freshman year, and he had the opportunity to really start to study physics, and it’s his first love, so he’ll be doing that in some form or another. I’m anxious to see how.


Question: What do your other children do?

Sarah Schlesinger: I don’t know if there’s a science gene. I do think there’s a math gene. They do other things. My oldest son is passionate about sort of economics and history, and he loves comics. And so he’s started his own small comic company at college, and he had the comic association, which is amazing to me, because it’s something I’m completely ignorant about. My third son loves the theater, and he loves the theater and movies in a way that, again, I’m an end user of the theater, the same way I’m an end user of books. I love to go to the theater, but he sees it and he was actually a production assistant last summer for a workshop, and he had the opportunity to really work in the theater. He’s been loving that stuff and doing it since he was two.

I am curious to see what he’ll do, but he’ll do something. He spends his, all he wants is theater tickets. He saves his money. He spends it. He finds these discount tickets. He goes with his friends. We were talking about some show. He said, “Yeah, I saw it three times.” Like why would you want to see something three times, because for me it’s all the narrative. “Just because you see different things. You see this and you get this, and each performance is slightly different.” I’m thinking it’s a different beast. He has this passion that’s different from mine, but I’m proud that he has his own passion. My youngest son, Joseph, is I think the one most likely to be a physician scientist. He has a real empathy for people, and an interest in science. And that combination is what you need to be a physician. So he may, I have no agenda for any of them to do it, but if any of them are going to do it, it’ll be him.

Recorded on: June 10, 2008