By Allison Scola
“The best scientists think like the best poets,” said biologist and Pulitzer Prizewinning author E. O. Wilson on the National Public Radio podcast The Really Big Questions. “The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and writes like a bookkeeper. But he’s still a poet inside.”
This great insight from the world’s leading authority on ants is particularly appropriate when one considers the path and successes of fellow Harvard professor and physician-scientist David T. Scadden, MD ’76PBPM.
Scadden, who attended the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program after graduating with a degree in English from Bucknell University in 1975, is a practicing ematologist/oncologist who focuses on bringing stem cell biology to patient care. His research and practice focuses on targeting the stem cell niche to attain novel therapies for blood diseases. Scadden is currently the Gerald and Darlene Jordan Professor of Medicine at Harvard University, Director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Co-Director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Co-Chair of the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University, and former Chief of Hematologic Malignancies at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. He holds over 20 patents, and therapies based on his research and work are utilized to treat blood diseases and cancer patients with immunodeficiency worldwide.
As a child, Scadden loved science. His father fostered his interest by building him a lab outfitted with a chemistry set in the family’s basement. However, once he reached high school, the Bergen County, New Jersey native found science to be tedious. Literature, on the other hand, captured Scadden’s imagination. “It brought to life elements of the heart and head and history in ways I hadn’t previously imagined. Literature also awakened in me an interest in the craft of writing,” remembers Scadden, who, while at Bucknell, wrote his senior thesis on the poet W. B. Yeats.
“Doing scholarly research on Yeats and having to distill it down to something readable for my thesis advisor was a concept-builder for me. It proved that I could take on big challenges. As a result, while still at Bucknell, I wanted to see if I could get reengaged with the sciences, so I took a few math classes to test myself. I loved coming from the world of ambiguity to the world of clarity and of right and wrong in mathematics,” recalls Scadden. “I thought, ‘I would really enjoy getting back to the sciences,’ but then my task was to sort out how one could craft a life out of the love of the humanities and use those principles as a way to pay the rent.
“Medicine was a way to do that.”
Scadden enrolled in the Columbia Postbac Premed Program and saw it as a rigorous way to test himself. He found success and enthusiasm for biology and the principles of how life is organized. He also volunteered at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and in the emergency room at Columbia Medical Center. “It was a test of whether or not I could enjoy being a caregiver and help people with acute need. It all felt right,” he recalls.
While a student at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, Scadden thought he would become a clinician, not a researcher. But what he found was that his background in the humanities not only enabled him to sympathize with patients and their families, but it also gave him a valuable foundation for successfully processing research. “I felt capable of being able to take complicated situations and break them down,” Scadden says.
When his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer while Scadden was an intern, he realized that hematology and oncology were areas where he wanted to make a difference. Now, over 30 years later, Scadden has clearly done just that, and not only with his ground-breaking research and work as a physician, but also as a teacher. For most of his career, Scadden has taught medical students and postdocs, but in addition, for the past six years, he has lead a freshman seminar at Harvard that bridges literature with science.
“The creative challenge of medical research is not immediately visible to people, and I thought if I connected with students early, they might be more encouraged to stay with the inherent joy of thinking about how the body works,” says Scadden.
Each semester twelve first-year students enroll in Blood: From Gory to Glory, a course that examines blood as represented in texts ranging from ancient Greek classics through modern ones, such as Dracula, and then explores the science associated with blood. Students study this “giver and taker of life” through many lenses—those of ritual and religion, good versus evil, and then through that of the microscope, for after considering how blood is represented throughout history, students then go to the lab to conduct experiments to understand blood’s power in the medical realm. Scadden’s message to students: For as long as there has been human life, there has been an evolving understanding and curiosity about this substance and “…we are all part of the discovery process.”
It is that sense of curiosity and analysis—one that Scadden has held since he was a young man—combined with his desire to share it with not only his students, but also with his colleagues and patients, that make him not only a wildly successful scientist, but also a poet, in the truest sense of the word.