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Pulling Back the Curtain: Ross Levine, MD

December 30, 2021
Ross Levine, MD
Ross Levine, MD
Laurence Joseph Dineen Chair in Leukemia Research and director of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Center for Hematologic Malignancies at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, New York

What was your first job?

My first summer jobs were at the publishing company where my mother was employed. I worked there for four summers during high school and college: I did data entry the first summer and then for the next three summers I drove a forklift and packed books into boxes for college bookstore orders. It was the kind of job in which I arrived in the morning and never stopped working until my shift ended. It made me really appreciate hard work and how important it was to keep going in my career. It was a very different job from the one I have now and probably any other job I've had, but I took a lot from that experience.

When did you know you wanted to go into medicine?

For me, it was always going to be about science. Both of my parents were involved in medicine, directly and indirectly – my mom was in medical publishing and my dad was a dentist – but, more than anything else, they just encouraged me to follow my love of science. As a kid, science was what I enjoyed and where I exceled. I continued pursuing it in college, where I learned relatively quickly that, though I loved all of science, I particularly enjoyed the more practical aspects that could be applied to the real world. Once the science turned to theorems and hypotheses and more abstract concepts, it became less interesting to me than solving a specific biologic or chemical problem. At that stage, medicine was a potential opportunity where I could take my interest in science and use it for a more tangible, specific endeavor.

Did you consider any other careers while you were in college?

Based on my other interests and experiences as an undergraduate at Harvard, law was the other obvious career option. I was on the parliamentary debate team in college and, as you might imagine, the majority of the people in that setting ultimately went into law. It certainly wasn't my preferred career path, but I really enjoyed my time on the debate team.

Where did your interest in debate start?

I tried different extracurricular activities in high school, and I found that I most enjoyed debate and public speaking. Harvard had a robust debate program, and I traveled around the world and met great people while representing the university's debate team at national and world competitions.

The skills I learned in debate have also been invaluable in my career as an investigator. Because of those experiences, I think I am better equipped to present my ideas and work in an articulate way – a skill I don't think we spend enough time trying to inculcate in academic medicine.

For example, I recently presented at a conference – not ASH! – where my slides didn't work. Ninety percent of the graphics didn't show up, but I was able to finish the next 25 minutes of the presentation because, as debate had taught me, I made sure to know my stuff so I could present it with or without the visual aids.

What type of advice did your mentors and teachers give you throughout your career?

I have been blessed with world-class mentors at every stage of my career. I went to medical school not expecting to become a laboratory scientist. If, as a first-year medical student, I hadn't worked with Lora Ellison, MD, a gynecologic cancer researcher and pathologist, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today.

I would say the most formative mentor in my career was Gary Gilliland, MD, PhD, with whom I worked during my postdoctoral fellowship. He was unmatched in every way, helping me with my scientific career. He also taught me how to be a mentor. It's difficult to describe how indebted to him I am.

Being a mentee doesn't end when you become an independent investigator or a faculty member. Charles Sawyers, MD, who recruited me to Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Craig Thompson, MD, have also been incredible sources of mentorship and support.

Career development is why academic scientists do what we do. I often think about how to pay that forward, or how to be as good of a mentor to others as mine were to me.

In that vein, what advice do you pass on to the young investigators you work with?

Focus on what's important, both scientifically and personally. There are plenty of things we can do in our scientific careers and in our lives that are hard to do, but that does not mean that they are all important. If we are going to put real effort into something, it should be toward a worthy goal.

So how do you figure out what's important?

Like I tell the young investigators I work with, it's an iterative process. Many people, including Stephen Nimer, MD, have given me this advice: Ask yourself on an annual basis, "What am I doing? What are the questions I am working on answering? What are the most important things to me, scientifically and personally?" Over time, certain things become more important, and others become less important. When I ask myself these questions, I am always surprised how often the answers lead me to re-prioritize.

Then, of course, you have to balance those bigger-picture goals with the day-to-day prioritization of your time – that's more difficult and something I think we are all working toward.

How do you think hematology and medicine have changed since you started your career?

The commitments involved with running a lab today are different than in the past. Being a lab director used to mean most of your time was spent in the lab, thinking about your science; now, as a laboratory head and a translational scientist, you have to actively protect your time to do those things that are really meaningful. The upside of that change is that what we do in the lab and what we do in the clinic are closely linked. Much of what we do in my lab is based on ideas that, if successful, can get tried in the clinic, and much of what happens in the clinic leads to ideas we can send to the lab.

On a typical day, what is your rose and what is your thorn?

The best part of the day is always when I sit with people in my lab – whether in one-on-one meetings or with the whole lab group – and look at the new science we're exploring. I love seeing what we're doing as a group and watching the data emerge in real time. It's the most amazing part of what we do: getting to see research in its nascent form and watching it evolve. I wouldn't trade that for anything.

The challenge is that we are spending more of our time in meetings. We're discussing important things – projects, regulations, collaborations, review panels, and more – but the 30-minute blocks start to add up, so I relish when some of those blocks are about the science.

How do you achieve the balance between your work life and your life outside of medicine? What makes that difficult?

I am fortunate to have a wonderful family. My wife, Erica, and I have three great kids: our son (12 years old) and two daughters (9 and 6 years old). They support me, and I try my best to support them and balance their needs with the needs of my career.

I enjoy the time I spend with my family, and I feel this makes me better at my job. The jobs we have in academic medicine are really hungry – they can easily consume every hour or minute that is available. You have to work at protecting your time; you can't just expect it to evolve passively.

To me, the most important thing has been having a partner in this enterprise. Erica and I have been together for a long time; we both recognize how critical it is to support each other on every level and to understand each other's priorities – both professionally and personally.

Is your wife also in medicine?

In a sense – she is a regulatory affairs specialist who helps investigators move drugs through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval landscape. She has a great appreciation for biomedical research and investigation. It's nice because we are able to talk to each other about what we do, but we don't do the same thing. It's a good balance.

She works at the same institution, but in a different area of town.  We both work in Manhattan and the kids go to schools relatively nearby so this helps with spending time together. We run into each other periodically, and sometimes I stop by and say hi to my kids out in their schools' playgrounds when I'm running around between meetings. It's the little moments that matter the most.

Each of our kids is different, with his or her own interests. It's great to be able to do with them the things they each enjoy. However, all three enjoy playing sports, which is great. I love sports and am a big baseball fan, so we spend a lot of time watching and going to games.

Mets or Yankees?

Mets, absolutely. In 1986, I was 14 years old, which means I was in my formative baseball years when the Mets were a compelling team. I grew up about 30 miles outside of New York City, so I was always a New York sports fan, and I'm proud to say that I've remained a New York sports fan despite a significant sojourn through New England.

What is one thing most people don't know about you?

Not many people know that, going into college and medical school, I really had no expectation of becoming a laboratory scientist and didn't find this field until very late in my career. If you had asked me what I would be doing with my medical degree at my college graduation, I would never have dreamed that I'd be doing what I do today. I was lucky to find something relatively late that I enjoyed and then to really go after it – even though it was an unusual path to get here


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