Your work involves retroviral oncogenesis. How did you first come to this line of research? Was it from the viral side or the cancer side? My Ph.D. is in microbiology, so I came from the viral side. I was fascinated by viruses and how such a small genetic unit could have such a major impact. But I also was very interested in cancer development. By the time I began conducting grad research, viruses were thought to be (and we now know they are) important causes of cancer. So that's really how it came together.
Scientists often speak fondly of "aha moments," the instant when all the pieces fit together and a new idea or discovery becomes clear in their mind. What was the biggest "aha moment" in your research career?
I thought this was a hard question. I think a big challenge that in the end worked out well for me was being challenged as a postdoc to come up with a truly novel idea and then figuring out how to actually solve that novel question. Understanding how you do that was probably in a way an "aha moment"—that's really understanding what science is about.
You're now Dean of the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts and Vice Dean for Research. For various reasons, administration work is embraced by some faculty, reviled by others. Why do you take on these roles?
Two reasons: one is that in an administration role I think you have the opportunity to shape and touch a broad range of faculty at your institution. I think there's value in that. If you're an administrator who comes from the faculty, you can kind of infuse the faculty ethos in the administration. That’s important. At this point I do all administration and teaching. I decided 18 months ago to back off the research. The difficulty with research is that you're often put in the position of making a 3-5 year commitment to training a student or postdoc. You're continually making a very long-range commitment. I wasn't sure I wanted to keep making these commitments, but I also didn't want to sit around and watch my lab die by attrition. So my other reason for taking on administration roles is that I wanted to do something that would make a contribution and be valuable. It was an out—you can walk away from an admin position with short notice, but you can't just decide to walk out on your lab.
Where do you see your field in 10 years?
I think from the perspective of cancer research, developing targeted therapies is going to be a key. For virally-induced cancers, developing vaccine strategies that touch the worldwide population, and not just people in developed countries, is another challenge I would highlight.
If you had to change careers today and you could do anything, what would you do?
I'd be a travel photographer. I do a lot of photography— most of the images on the Sackler School website are my photos.
What’s your favorite science book?
The thing that really turned me on to microbiology was Microbe Hunters—my copy was worn out. I thought that was the coolest thing. That book probably sent me down the path to microbiology. But I gave that book to my kids and they read two chapters and gave it up.
What is something about you that most people don’t know?
I do web design and web photography. That's not a common thing for a dean to do. I do a lot of work on Tufts websites. I manage the Sackler school website—I contributed design work on that, but I was not the exclusive designer.