Human intestinal organoid. Credit: David Hill
David Hill won the 2015 Lasker Essay Contest with his essay “Mutual understanding: uncovering the mechanistic basis of the host-symbiont relationship in human health.” He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he studies the molecular mechanisms that guide microbial colonization of the neonatal intestine.
In this Q&A, David shares his thoughts on the benefits of participating in the Essay Contest and his future as a young scientist.
Q: For your essay topic, you chose to write about the human microbiome, which is also your research focus. What inspired you to pursue research in this area?
A: I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding mentors in this area of research. As an undergraduate I worked on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with Carol de la Motte at the Cleveland Clinic, who would eventually become my PhD mentor. In the IBD field there was an early appreciation for the importance of the microbiome to human health. At the same time, I was working on the molecular evolution of host-pathogen interactions with Helen Piontkivska at Kent State University and gaining a deeper appreciation for how evolutionary forces shape the interactions between species. Currently, Vince Young and Jason Spence help me bridge this gap between two distinct areas of research to understand the role the microbiome plays in human development.
Q: What role do you think scientists and clinicians should play in communicating medical advances and issues to the broader society?
A: Scientists and clinicians have a responsibility to deliver on the great promises of medical research. Part of this is outreach and advocacy that makes our work accessible for the people who support it. Another part is engagement with our local communities to promote science literacy, particularly at the elementary and high school levels. The more people get to know the scientists in their community, the more they will begin to appreciate what we do and why we do it.
Q: What would you say to MD and PhD students if they asked why it is important to participate in this essay contest?
A: Although we live with and experience the pressures and challenges of working in research every day, there are few forums for students in biomedical sciences to express a viewpoint on the future direction of the field. Part of the appeal in participating in the Lasker Essay Contest is having that opportunity to give voice to these views and experiences and to have that work placed alongside the distinguished Lasker alumni and current award recipients. I applaud the Lasker Foundation for giving early-career scientists a seat at the table, and I hope that students and early-career scientists will continue to embrace this opportunity to contribute to conversations about the future of medical research.
Q: How did you prepare for the essay contest?
A: I knew that my essay would be strongest if I wrote about something I work on and have a lot of enthusiasm for, so the choice of topic was easy enough. From there it was a matter of finding a good ‘hook’, something that would engage the reader. I had been reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy at the time and thought that framing recent discoveries and the future promise of microbiome research in terms of the history of science and philosophy would have a lot of appeal. I wanted to make the case that for the first time we have the ability to make tremendous progress in our understanding of this phenomena of human-microbe symbiosis.
Q: What was your favorite moment at the 2015 Lasker Awards ceremony?
A: I spent the entire day simply in awe at how fortunate I was to be invited. As an early-career scientist, it was heartening to hear about the struggles Witkin, Elledge, and Allison faced throughout their careers and how these challenges resulted in important insights. I was particularly inspired by Joanne Liu’s persistent advocacy for the fight against Ebola. She took virtually no credit herself, although her personal sacrifices for this cause must be tremendous, and instead used the platform of the Lasker Awards ceremony to advocate for the needs of her patients in West Africa.
Q: You were present at the 2015 Breakfast at Lasker. What did you think of Evelyn Witkin’s advice that scientists should be more open to discussing what they are working on with their colleagues?
A: I remember this comment from Evelyn Witkin, which was both insightful and inspiring. The complexity of doing high-quality scientific work makes collaboration a necessity in most cases. Yet there is a persistent culture of protectiveness over data and reluctance to give up any perceived competitive edge. As a practical solution to this dilemma for the working scientist, her advice that “no one can steal your work if everyone knows what you are working on” is an attitude that I’ve tried to adopt myself since the Breakfast at Lasker. At this early stage in my career I have a lot to gain through collaboration — and little to lose.
Q: Do you feel confident that you will be able to secure funding for your research in the future?
A: This is probably the biggest concern of any academic researcher, but particularly early-career scientists, since we are still trying to prove that we have what it takes to sustain a career in research. We all know great scientists who have had to leave research because they were unable to secure funding. It absolutely does affect my career choices, particularly since I have a family to look out for. Maintaining stable employment has to come before my personal scientific interests, although I am fortunate that I’ve been able to do work that I care deeply about. I’m going to work hard to make sure I can continue doing work that I enjoy.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A: It’s a privilege to work in academic research, and I find my work personally and professionally rewarding. I want to keep doing this as long as I am able to. Over time I hope to make teaching a larger part of my role, since I think this is among the most important responsibilities of any scientist. Most importantly, in 10 years I want to be able to look back and see that my work has had an impact.