Q: What is your background?
A: I was born in Kiev, my family immigrated to the U.S. in 1989 – it was very much the “American dream” experience. My parents came here with very little, but my dad was able to find work in his field – he was a software engineer and was able to send my brother to Stanford and Yale and me to MIT. My brother and I were able to have opportunities we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t come to the US, which has always been a motivating force in my life.
I completed both my undergrad and graduate education at MIT. I wasn’t sure what to study because I had interests that spanned biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. I chose materials science because it’s a discipline that touches all of those things. As an undergrad, I considered pre-med as a path briefly, so I became a certified EMT in Massachusetts and volunteered for the campus ambulance service, which led me to realize that patient care shouldn’t be my full time career, but it gave me some exposure to the challenges in healthcare.
As an undergrad, I took a thermodynamics course from Prof. Darrell Irvine, who was studying the interface between the immune system and polymeric materials. I was inspired by his ideas and their incredible implications for drug delivery, immunotherapy, and vaccine development. One of his graduate students agreed to take me on as an intern, and soon I was hooked and stayed in the lab for grad school, studying biomaterials for HIV vaccine development.
Q: What led you to where you are now?
A: I joined the Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM) after getting to know Philip Eckhoff, Principle Investigator for IDM. He and I held the same graduate fellowship from the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. At the time, IDM was small and focused on malaria modeling. Philip was looking to grow some tendrils in other fields—namely polio, HIV, and TB. For my dissertation on HIV vaccines I didn’t need to understand the epidemiology of HIV per se, but MIT has a great program where you can cross-register with Harvard classes, and I took classes on broader issues, like epidemiology and global health policy.
Because I was interested in expanding from vaccine development into broader global health topics, Philip thought I might be interested in helping to grow that tendril of IDM, so he took me on as a consultant to start thinking about HIV modeling and what the field had done so far, and what were ways that the field of HIV modeling might be able to advance with the kinds of approaches Philip was already applying in malaria modeling. As I was wrapping up my thesis, I was getting more and more hooked on some of the stuff that Philip was doing. I ended up moving out to Washington and my start date was a week after my thesis defense. I just couldn’t wait – I was really excited to get started.
Q: What makes working at IDM unique for you and your team?
A: In particular, IDM is a unique environment because there are plenty of academic modeling groups out there, and there are software companies out there, but it’s rare for an academic modeler to be able to interact with a professional software person. About half of our group is software developers who almost treat their jobs like a small startup company trying to produce software, and the other half are researchers who are trying to interact with global health community as a think-tank. The new ground forged by our group is where researchers and professional software developers intersect.
Q: What do you bring to the IDM team that is unique or different than the rest of the team?
A: One of the big questions that brought me to IDM grew out of my graduate research. I increasingly began thinking not only is it possible to develop a vaccine, and certain technologies can enable that, but also what would the impact of a vaccine be? And if we can’t have a vaccine quickly, does that mean we’ve lost or can we still win against HIV? I think I really came here to answer that question – to zoom out from vaccines specifically and to ask more generally, how can we win?
Q: What do you do at IDM?
A: On one hand I’m a researcher and on the other I’ve become a manager/supervisor for people at IDM. Both of those have been huge learning experiences for me.
The kind of research we do is using agent-based detail HIV models to answer questions about policy – things like what would be the impact of increasing retention on HIV treatment, or trying to get more people who have been lost to care back into care. Things that incredibly enough, we still don’t know, such as: where are we losing people in the health system? Exploring different hypotheses and trying to squint at the data from all different angles to see if it can tell us anything about that, is what I spend most of my time doing as a researcher.
As a manager/supervisor/mentor I get to work with members of the HIV and TB teams to help guide the different research questions. I also directly supervise individuals on these teams, to make sure that they’re getting the kind of career development that they need as individuals, that they’re motivated, that they’re answering productive and interesting research questions. It’s interesting for me to think back on the people who supervised me in my scientific career and the times when I’ve been most motivated and productive, and to challenge myself to provide that kind of support and motivation to the people on these teams.
Q: What inspires you the most about what you do?
A: In part, it’s the excitement of knowing that we’re really breaking new ground. Part of our mission will require somewhat of a mind shift in policy makers and consumers in terms of the criteria and expectations of the modeling field.
In part, it’s our technical capacity. In this group, if you look at how many researchers we have working on any given disease, we’re hugely outnumbered by some academic or private research groups, where there might be lots of graduate students and post-docs all working on that same disease. But we are at this unique interface with software development, policy, and basic research, I think we have the opportunity to move things forward in a new direction.
Most of all, it’s my colleagues at IDM. It’s an incredible team with an amazing culture. I’ve learned so much from my co-workers. There is a sense of feeling honored to get to do this sort of work, and it makes the team collaborative rather than competitive, even while pushing hard and feeling great pride in our work.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: Over New Year’s I blubbered through “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, and now I’m reading a book about the history of the Center for Disease Control called “Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service” by Maryn McKenna, about how the Epidemic Intelligence Service dealt with the SARS outbreak and other epidemics.