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Medical Researcher/Immunologist -
Dr. Barry Bloom

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Barry Bloom that took place at the "Winding Your Way through DNA" symposium at the University of California San Francisco in 1992. At the time, Dr. Bloom was an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York.

Excerpted from the symposium transcripts with permission of the University of California, San Francisco.

Interviewer: What is the goal of your work, what are you trying to do, and how does it affect society?

Dr. Bloom: Well, in the narrow sense, my field is immunology and the study of immunity, and what we would like to do is make vaccines that are cheap and effective that could save the lives of many, many children and adults in this world who suffer from infectious diseases. In a broader sense, in order to do that, we have to understand how the immune system works, and that is an exciting enterprise and a very stimulating science.

Interviewer: Personally, why do you like doing what you are doing?

Dr. Bloom: I like doing what I'm doing because there are almost no other ways that I can think of to make a living where every day is a new day. Where every day you come into the lab and are besieged by questions that you never heard before by your students; problems that you thought were solved are not solved; problems that you thought were hopeless are solved. And every day you get a chance to think up new things to do. Every day is a new day, every day is a new life.

And within the fun of doing that, within an exciting intellectual environment with stimulating and critical students and generous and helpful colleagues, there is the delusion that you are actually doing some good in this world, that the fruits of your efforts are not just to increase your bank account, which is not usually the case in our business, but to make a vaccine or to make a drug or to understand how to stop a disease. And it makes the fun even more rewarding. And it makes the effort to put in an extra hour or two not so difficult. So I can't imagine anything being both more fun and more rewarding at the same time.

Interviewer: You say "delusions"? I don't know if you were just being cynical, or do you really believe that?

Dr. Bloom: The question is whether what I say we do in science is delusional or real. And obviously, no one can answer that question. But I think I can explain the necessity for wanting to believe what I do - and what people in our field of science do - is important.

When you go to a country like Ethiopia in 1984 during the famine, when you go to developing countries where kids are dying of malaria, there is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. These are preventable deaths, these are lives that could make a contribution. And then when one comes back home, one has to convince oneself that what we're doing is going to make a difference, because it has to make a difference.

And if we don't do it in biomedical research, I don't know what is going to make a difference. Those (Third World) countries are not going to have great industries, they are not going to have factories making luxury items. They are going to be at the margin of life for a long time. And this is one of the few aspects that - while it can't make them richer - it can keep them alive and healthy. And so if it is a delusion, then I have to have that delusion, or I would be fairly depressed much of the time.

Interviewer: What would you say to a high school student who might be thinking about getting involved with biology? What would be your advice?

Dr. Bloom: I think there are few areas more exciting for a high school student than to be involved in biology. Let me just say in my own case, that's when I started. I will admit that I did my first dissection on a smelt when I was 7. My father was a doctor, and I stole his instruments and got considerable reprimand for having done so. And so I was always keen on it. But it was not until high school when I went to a summer laboratory - Jackson Lab in Maine where many young scientists got their start - that I just fell in love with science, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world. So I think that the most important thing is to try it.

The most formative time in anybody's life is when they are a high school student, because all the possibilities are open and it is only experience that is limiting you. And so if one can get a job in a high school lab, in a university or a medical school laboratory, which I did every summer since I was in high school, one gets experience. One either likes it or not. One finds it challenging or not.

One may not always enjoy the insecurity of not knowing whether what you are doing is going to work or not. But if you do, if you like that excitement and risk in what one does with one's life, then there will be nothing more rewarding I think than that feeling called the "ah-hah!" feeling, where after the 999th failure something goes right, and you feel that you've chiseled a little chink from the armor on nature, and you are really beginning to understand something.

Go to: An Interview with Roger N. Beachy, Ph.D.

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