Scientist Sarah Schlesinger on Art and Entertainment
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: What do scientists need to learn from the arts?
Sarah Schlesinger: Oh, well, first, scientists, though many don’t like to admit this, are human. And I think that the arts enrich our lives in ways like nothing else. And I have been known to say, as I said I have several friends who are artists, that if I could be an artist, I would be. I’m a scientist because that’s what I can do, but if I had it in me to be an artist, I would do that. One of my cousins is a composer, and it amazes me that he has the ability to create something of beauty that impacts some peoples’ lives in the way that it does. I have the ability to learn and discover about the natural world and to teach that to people, which I feel honored about everyday, but he actually gets to make something new. And so I think that art in that sense enriches our lives as scientists.
I think to enjoy art and to appreciate it keeps us humble a little bit, which is a good thing. And I also think that our minds work in all different ways. And I’m not a neuroscientist, and I don’t claim to understand it, but I do think that when you’re thinking really hard about something, and you’re trying to figure it out often, at lest for me, I get to a place where I just can’t go any farther. I sort of explore each avenue and I think and I think and I think. And then at some point I just have to say, “You know what? I can’t think about that right now.” And that’s when going to a museum or for me often reading a book, frees my mind to a different place, and it’s with that freedom that often what I needed to have happen happens. One of the things that we’re very fortunate about on our campus is we have this beautiful campus. And there’s a lot of art on the campus, both architectural art and visual art. And I think that on some sort of subconscious level that, at least for me, that that helps me. I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you that it does.
Question: What is your favorite book?
Sarah Schlesinger: Oh, I have many favorite books. My all time favorite book is “Anna Karenina”, because I think that if one is looking for truth in some way, in literature you can find truth about the human condition. And I enjoy reading those sorts of things immensely. And I love “War and Peace” for all the sort of plot, the great story, because I often say that literature. I’m a consumer. I want to read it and I want a good story. I want to enjoy it and just revel in it, get away from what I’m thinking about. And there’s nothing like a Russian novel for that. But I love the sort of truth about the human condition that I find in “Anna Karenina.”
Question: How do you feel about medical dramas on TV?
Sarah Schlesinger: Oh, I love watching medicals. So, I’m talking about “Anna Karenina”, but I read New York Magazine, and I read People, and I read The Times, and I live in the world, and I read the latest novel, and I watch “Sex in the City” and “The Sopranos”, and I loved “Rome.” Part of the reason I loved “Rome” was because of the sex and violence, but part of it was because of the absolutely beautiful backgrounds, and the idea that it was showing Rome as it was, not as how we think of it. I’m sorry.
So I watch medical shows, and I began watching medical shows with my mother when I was a little girl, and she watched “Dr. Kildare.” And I loved watching “Dr. Kildare” with her because I got to stay up late. Now, and actually as I’ve gone to medical school and been a physician, I find that some of them irritate me. If they have bad technical advice, I can’t watch them. If they’re saying stupid stuff and doing stuff that you wouldn’t actually do, then I get irritated and it’s not recreational, so I don’t bother.
But, for instance, “ER” has very good technical advice. And Michael Crichton came and lectured at the university, and we had the opportunity to talk with him. He was telling us that actually some of the actresses particularly are actual real nurses. So they really, it rings true. And it might be a busman’s holiday, but I enjoy it. It’s like a guilty pleasure.
Recorded on: June 10, 2008
If Schlesinger could be an artist, she would be, she says.
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