Sarah Schlesinger on Philosophy and Religion
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 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: Have any philosophies or religions directly influenced your work?
Sarah Schlesinger: That’s an interesting question. I am a person of religious faith. I am Jewish. I was raised Jewish. I keep a kosher home. I got to synagogue regularly, not as regularly as probably I should. But my sort of ritual observance doesn’t have all that much to do with my work, but my faith does. And when I was younger, like I guess most people, I went through a period of questioning what I believed, and it was how I was raised, but I didn’t just accept it as it was. But one of the things that I think, for me, when you have the privilege of looking at the natural world in great detail, and seeing how it works, it’s very hard not to come away with the sense that there’s some higher power, that there’s some greater force than us.
There’s so much beauty, and so much detail, and so much complexity, and so much that we don’t understand, that it would be hard for me not to have faith. And I wish that I could paraphrase appropriately, or be half as, or even a fraction, as eloquent as Joshua Lederberg, who was our university president for many years, and I don’t know if this correct, but if not the youngest Nobelist, one of them. He figured out that bacteria reproduce sexually when he was 22.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize when he was 32. He just died last year in his early 80’s. So he lived most of his life as a laureate. And he was generally regarded, certainly by the people who I know and by many people, as the smartest man at our university, which is place where there’s a lot of really smart people. And he was also an incredibly nice man.
He was what we call a mensch. He was just a good person, but he was from a rabbinic family, and his father and grandfather, going back, had been rabbis.
And, in fact, he had disappointed his parents terribly by not keeping up the rabbinic tradition. And I remember once hearing him speak about it and hearing him say how he had found in his life his ability to discover and understand the natural world. And, again, he was brilliant and much more eloquent than I was, a reflection of his faith, and that it was for him the work that he could do that was most constant with his faith. He spoke brilliantly about being a person of faith and a scientist. And I think that for me, it’s just a given. I don’t even think about it very much. It’s just how I am in the world.
Recorded on: June 10, 2008
Former President of the Rockefeller University Joshua Lederberg was a person of both science and faith, and Schlesinger talks about why she respected him for it.
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