What is the most interesting experiment you ever conducted?
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 is the most interesting experiment you ever conducted?
Sarah Schlesinger: So I was in high school. I grew up in Westchester in a fine public school, Garfield Public High School, and I was doing biology sort of on the side after school with this wonderful teacher, Mrs. Constant. And parenthetically, I found her using the internet a few years ago, and I had the opportunity to invite her to lunch at the Faculty Club at the Rockefeller.
She remembered me, which was pretty amazing, because it was a long time ago, and she had moved to several other schools since, and had ended up, I think, as a principal. But we had this really lovely lunch about two years ago. I was doing experiments in the prep room of the Biology Department, and I was doing a series of experiments on frogs and tadpoles and growth hormones. And so I had different tadpoles in watch glasses. Watch glasses are open vessels that are sort of like dishes, I guess is the best way to describe them. They had different experimental conditions, and they were all labeled. And I was very methodically coming each day after school, because this was in addition to my regular schoolwork, and noting the changes in each condition based on the dose of growth hormones. And what I was doing was showing, or demonstrating, how growth hormone induced differentiation from tadpole to frog.
I don’t remember the specifics of the conditions now, but what I do vividly remember was somebody thought they were going to be helpful to me. This was after several weeks. And they dumped all the watch glasses into a bucket to wash them for me. So all of my experimental conditions, chu, into the bucket. So being the 16-year-old girl that I was, Mrs. Constant came in and found me crying in the prep room. I didn’t know what else to do. I was just beside myself. And she said to me, “You know, you don’t belong in high school anymore.” She said, “We don’t have the resources to support your interests and your education, and you should consider applying to college.”
And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, you can apply to college after three years of high school if there’s an academic reason, and you have an academic reason.” So I thought about it and I went home and discussed it with my parents, particularly my father. I really wanted to do it, partially for the academics and partially I think I was anxious to get out from home into college, and what I saw as my own life. But really because I was very curious and I wanted to be in a place where I could, there were laboratory resources that would support that curiosity, because it was clear to me, for me, that the best way to explore that curiosity was in the lab, to work in something that I could touch and see and feel. So I applied to college, and I was accepted to Wellesley with only three years of high school for the reasons that I explained. I was delighted and I was thrilled to be going.
And you know Wellesley has an association with MIT, so I felt like I had the world was my oyster. But when we went to meet with my high school guidance counselor, they didn’t want me to leave, because I had won a National Merit Scholarship, and there were various things that were going to come to them through me, I think, and they just didn’t want people leaving. So my father talked to the guidance counselor, and the guidance counselor said, “Well if she leaves now and we don’t grant her the diploma, and she doesn’t finish college, she’ll be a high school drop out.” And my dad, at that point, looked at the man. He said, “We’re going to put our money on her.” And we walked out. And so I actually had to drop out of high school. So I was technically a high school. I guess I still am, technically a high school drop out. And for many years, I got GED high school equivalency stuff to my house. So I’m kind of proud of that, and on my CV I have that I attended high school for three years, but I was actually never awarded a high school diploma. I did, however, get my college diploma and my medical school degree, as well. So I feel pretty good about that. But I went off to Wellesley for that reason.
Recorded on: June 10, 2008
It involved frogs, tadpoles, growth hormones, and a hard lesson on outgrowing the resources at hand.