Learnings from an 80-Year-Old Scientist: Dr. Fauci
A friend recently invited me to Clubhouse, a new social media app in which you can drop in on various “rooms” to listen to live audio presentations. One of my earlier experiences was listening in to a discussion with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was accompanied mid-way through by a surprise visit by his wife, Christine Grady, a nurse, bioethicist, who serves as Head of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. It showcased one of the differences between a typical press meeting, and a spontaneous conversation by people. Of course, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and this allowed for up to the minute frank conversations.
The aim of this blog isn’t to report on what Dr. Fauci said, so much as to reflect on what the power of frank conversation (collaboration) means for all of us advancing knowledge in the drug discovery space. Something that is obvious, and that we can all take pride in, is that Dr. Fauci had great respect for is the rapid leaps possible through innovations. The big attention lately, and rightly so, has been on the scientists and engineers around the world who have discovered—and manufactured—vaccines at a record pace to potentially bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of us who are involved in creating new medications are helping to make the world a better place, it is often why we got into this business in the first place.
Here are a few thoughts I had after listening to Dr. Fauci speak:
- Age Is Just a State of Mind. On Christmas Eve 2020 Dr. Fauci turned 80 years old. He’s frequently asked about his age, and about what keeps him going. Slate wrote a series “Slate’s 80 Over 80,” in which Dr. Fauci was given the top ranking. Asked about his age he said he feels the same motivation and drive today as he felt 40 years ago when helping to lead the charge against the first signs of what would become the AIDS epidemic. While he says he can no longer run marathons as he once did, he told Slate “I do a lot of power walking. I do that with my wife almost every day, four miles or so. It feels good. But that’s the only thing that’s really different. My energy level, everybody will tell you, that my energy level surpasses people who are 50 years younger than I am.” A lesson here is that age isn’t for counting. Follow your passion, and then work is not a chore, but an enjoyable calling. Sigmund Freud famously quipped, “Love and work…work and love…that’s all there is love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
- Smell the Roses and Enjoy Your Kids. When Slate asked Dr. Fauci what advice he would give to his 40-year-old self, he replied: “What I likely would tell my 40-year-old self is that I got so absorbed in the urgency and the challenge of the work that I was in, in those early years of HIV, that I did not spend as much time with my children as I should have.” Of course, some of us are programmed to push the envelope on the work side, for the betterment of the world. Everyone must think through their own values, it is one of the meta lessons of the re-shift in thinking we’ve all undertaken throughout this historical pandemic.
- The Pandemic’s Not Over . . . and Beware of Wild Cards. Within the science community, we know this pandemic is far from over. We hope it is winding down, but it certainly isn’t 100% over. On Clubhouse people will share details of loved ones on respirators and worse. That’s a message Dr. Fauci repeatedly tries to get across to the rest of the population, in language that resonates with non-scientists too. Dr. Fauci, in an interview with CNN host Wolf Blitzer, recently said “We’ve really got to not declare victory prematurely. So we’re in the late innings, but it’s not over (he likes to use baseball analogies). That’s the thing we’ve really got to get people to appreciate. We’re going in the right direction; we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but now’s not the time to declare victory.” When Blitzer asked which inning, Dr. Fauci said: “In the bottom of the 6th” In another interview, when asked about the emergence of COVID-19 mutations, he termed them “wild cards,” and cautioned: “We have to keep an eye on mutations. If they become dominant, that then could lead to another surge." It is essentially a race between the rate of viral mutation, and the power of an interconnected, intelligent effort.
- Underscoring the Value of Basic Research. A popular chorus is: “If they can find a vaccine for COVID-19 so fast, why can’t they find a cure for . . .” In a recent editorial Dr. Fauci wrote for Science Magazine, “The Story Behind COVID-19 Vaccines,” Dr. Fauci underscores the value of basic research and the collaboration of disciplines. He wrote, in part, “The discovery of an immunogen adaptable to the multiple platforms (messenger RNA and others) used for COVID-19 vaccines resulted from collaboration across different scientific subspecialities. … The speed and efficiency with which these highly efficacious vaccines were developed and their potential for saving millions of lives are due to an extraordinary multidisciplinary effort involving basic, preclinical, and clinical science that had been under way—out of the spotlight—for decades before the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the stories and recounting of this pandemic are written, it is important that this history not be forgotten, as we are reminded once again of the societal value of a sustained and robust support of our scientific enterprise.”
- Focusing on Science Over Politics (Stay with the Truth). Dr. Fauci has worked with seven Presidents, across the political spectrum. Dr. Fauci speaks of the need to tell truth to power, a lesson he learned back in 1984 when he was invited to the White House to brief President Ronald Reagan on the AIDS crisis. Before going, he asked a White House veteran for advice and was told he should walk through the door realizing he might not be invited back—and to be comfortable with that. Dr. Fauci said: “It was just: go with the truth, go with the evidence, and don’t be afraid to tell somebody something that they may not want to hear.” One of the hallmarks of great science is to see the truth, to see reality as it is, clearly. Good luck to all in the trenches of discovery finding truth with a capital T.
Barry A. Bunin, PhD, is the Founder & CEO of Collaborative Drug Discovery, which provides a modern approach to drug discovery research informatics trusted globally by thousands of leading researchers. CDD Vault® is a hosted biological and chemical database that securely manages your private and external data.