"President Kennedy was the first president to not wear a hat. Have you seen men wearing hats since then?" Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world's few astrophysicists with a household name, asks on the phone from his car. Well, no. "If I wear some cowboy hats, it's because it's the outfit, it's not because that's my standard equipment when I leave the home."
"We have classes on 100 things and none of them are on the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not."
But Tyson, who speaks in methodically reasoned paragraphs with lots of semi-rhetorical questions to make sure we're all still listening, isn't really making a point about Mad Men-era men's clothing trends. "Should a president influence fashion?" he says. "I think people sometimes don't know the full power they have over other people. So, that's the first prong in this comment. My second prong is, why would anyone take medical advice from a politician?"
Days before our conversation, news broke that President Trump said he was taking hydroxychloroquine, which he had hyped for months as a surefire magical cure for COVID-19 — the science just hadn't caught up to his predictions. But the science never did catch up; instead, it went the opposite direction, showing that hydroxychloroquine, when used to treat COVID-19 patients, actually led to an increased risk of death.
Alarm spread swiftly around the globe as experts cast the president's professed self-medicating as illogical and dangerous. However, it was just one of a series of wild pieces of medical advice espoused by Trump from his mighty pulpit, like that, hey, maybe disinfectants could cure people when injected into their bodies. (That also leads to death.)
But people do take medical advice from politicians. An Arizona man afraid of COVID-19 died after consuming chloroquine phosphate, which he and his wife had sitting on the back of a shelf after using it to treat koi fish for parasites. The pandemic has exposed many weaknesses in the feedback loop of society, government, the media, and science, including the difficulty of seeding accurate medical information with the masses. Many on the left and right decry a broken political and news media system, but Tyson believes the problem isn't mega-influencers like Trump. Rather it's the general public's desire to take their advice on complex topics – like the science of virology – that such influencers know nothing about.
Tyson's not upset with the public, who follow Trump's advice. "As an educator, I can't get angry with you," he says. Or even Trump himself. "Trump was elected by 60 million people, right? So, you could say all you want about Trump, kick him out of office, whatever. [There's] still the 60 million fellow Americans who walk among us who voted for him. So, what are you going to do with them?"
Tyson also isn't upset with Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms that serve as today's biggest conduits for misinformation. After all, in the realm of modern media's history, these networks are tadpoles. "As an educator and as a scientist, I'm leaning towards, let's figure out a way to train people in school to not fall victim to false information, and how to judge what is likely to be false relative to what is likely to be true. And that's hard, but you and I have never had a class in that, have we? We've had biology classes, we've had English lit, we've had classes on Shakespeare — we have classes on 100 things and none of them are on the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not."
This is why Tyson himself doesn't engage in Trump bashing on his social feeds, but does try to get people to differentiate factual science from fake news. "I feel responsibility to participate in the enlightenment of culture and of civilization, because I have that access," says Tyson, who has 13.9M followers on Twitter, 1.2M on Instagram, and 4.2M on Facebook. He doesn't tell his followers not to inject themselves with Clorox ("no one likes being told what to do"), but tries to get them to visualize a pandemic's impact by comparing it to, say, a throng of rabbits.
"Left unchecked, 1,000 rabbits in 5 years, become 7-billion, the human population of the World. After 15 years, a 'land-ocean' of rabbits fills to one-kilometer depth across all of Earth's continents. Viruses can reproduce waaaay faster than Rabbits," he tweeted on April 6, after much of the nation had locked down to slow the pandemic's spread. For added viral impact, he attached a photo of an adorable, perhaps appropriately scared-looking, white bunny.
Of course, not all celebrities message responsibly.
Tyson is a rare scientist-turned-celebrity. His appeal isn't acting in movies or singing dance-pop anthems (if only). Rather, his life's work is making science fun and interesting to as many people as possible through his best-selling books on astrophysics and his directorship of the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His longstanding place in popular culture is an exception, not the rule.
And he believes his fellow celebrities, actors and pop music stars and internet influencers, should aid the public's quest for accurate scientific information. And in order to do that, they must point their followers to experts and organizations who know what they're talking about. "It could be to a website, it could be to a talk that was given. I would say that that's where the responsibility lies if you control the interests of a million people," he says.
One example of this is Lady Gaga's March 14 Instagram of herself on her couch with her three dogs with the caption, "So I talked to some doctors and scientists. It's not the easiest for everyone right now but the kindest/healthiest thing we can do is self-quarantine and not hang out with people over 65 and in large groups. I wish I could see my parents and grandmas right now but it's much safer to not so I don't get them sick in case I have it. I'm hanging at home with my dogs." (All the celebrities here in this article are my references, not Tyson's, who does not call out specific people.)
Of course, not all celebrities message responsibly. Jessica Biel and Jenny McCarthy have faced scorn for public stances against vaccines. Gwyneth Paltrow and her media brand GOOP have faced backlash for promoting homeopathic treatments with no basis in science.
"The New Age Movement is a cultural idea, it has nothing to do with religion, has nothing to do with politics, and it's people who were rejecting objectively established science in part or in total because they have a belief system that they want to attach to it, okay? This is how you get the homeopathic remedies," says Tyson. "That's why science exists, so that we don't have to base decisions on belief systems."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
It looked like only good things were ahead of Taylor Schreiber in 2010.
Schreiber had just finished his PhD in cancer biology and was preparing to return to medical school to complete his degree. He also had been married a year, and, like any young newlyweds up for adventure, he and his wife Nicki decided to go backpacking in the Costa Rican rainforest.
He was 31, and it was April Fool's Day—but no joke.
During the trip, he experienced a series of night sweats and didn't think too much about it. Schreiber hadn't been feeling right for a few weeks and assumed he had a respiratory infection. Besides, they were sleeping outdoors in a hot, tropical jungle.
But the night sweats continued even after he got home, leaving his mattress so soaked in the morning it was if a bucket of water had been dumped on him overnight. On instinct, he called one of his thesis advisors at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Florida and described his symptoms.
Dr. Joseph Rosenblatt didn't hesitate. "It sounds like Hodgkins. Come see me tomorrow," he said.
The next day, Schreiber was diagnosed with Stage 3b Hodgkin Lymphoma, which meant the disease was advanced. He was 31, and it was April Fool's Day—but no joke.
"I was scared to death," he recalls. "[Thank] goodness it's one of those cancers that is highly treatable. But being 31 years old and all of a sudden being told that you have a 30 percent of mortality within the next two years wasn't anything that I was relieved about."
For Schreiber, the diagnosis was a personal and professional game-changer. He couldn't work in the hospital as a medical student while undergoing chemotherapy, so he wound up remaining in his post-doctorate lab for another two years. The experience also solidified his decision to apply his scientific and medical knowledge to drug development.
Today, now 39, Schreiber is co-founder, director and chief scientific officer of Shattuck Labs, an immuno-oncology startup, and the developer of several important research breakthroughs in the field of immunotherapy.
After his diagnosis, he continued working full-time as a postdoc, while undergoing an aggressive chemotherapy regimen.
"These days, I look back on [my cancer] and think it was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me," he says. "In medical school, you learn what it is to treat people and learn about the disease. But there is nothing like being a patient to teach you another side of medicine."
Medicine first called to Schreiber when his maternal grandfather was dying from lung cancer complications. Schreiber's uncle, a radiologist at the medical center where his grandfather was being treated, took him on a tour of his department and showed him images of the insides of his body on an ultrasound machine.
Schreiber was mesmerized. His mother was a teacher and his dad sold windows, so medicine was not something to which he had been routinely exposed.
"This weird device was like looking through jelly, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever," he says.
The experience led him to his first real job at the Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, NH, then to a semester-long internship program during his senior year in high school in Concord Hospital's radiology department.
"This was a great experience, but it also made clear that there was not any meaningful way to learn or contribute to medicine before you obtained a medical degree," says Schreiber, who enrolled in Bucknell College to study biology.
Bench science appealed to him, and he volunteered in Dr. Jing Zhou's nephrology department lab at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine. Under the mentorship of one of her post-docs, Lei Guo, he learned a range of critical techniques in molecular biology, leading to their discovery of a new gene related to human polycystic kidney disease and his first published paper.
Before his cancer diagnosis, Schreiber also volunteered in the lab of Dr. Robert "Doc" Sackstein, a world-renowned bone marrow transplant physician and biomedical researcher, and his interests began to shift towards immunology.
"He was just one of those dynamic people who has a real knack for teaching, first of all, and for inspiring people to want to learn more and ask hard questions and understand experimental medicine," Schreiber says.
It was there that he learned the scientific method and the importance of incorporating the right controls in experiments—a simple idea, but difficult to perform well. He also made what Sackstein calls "a startling discovery" about chemokines, which are signaling proteins that can activate an immune response.
As immune cells travel around our bodies looking for potential sources of infection or disease, they latch onto blood vessel walls and "sniff around" for specific chemical cues that indicate a source of infection. Schreiber and his colleagues designed a system that mimics the blood vessel wall, allowing them to define which chemical cues efficiently drive immune cell migration from the blood into tissues.
Schreiber received the best overall research award in 2008 from the National Student Research Foundation. But even as Schreiber's expertise about immunology grew, his own immune system was about to fight its hardest battle.
After his diagnosis, he continued working full-time as a postdoc in the lab of Eckhard Podack, then chair of the microbiology and immunology department at the University of Miami's Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.
At the same time, Schreiber began an aggressive intravenous chemotherapy regimen of adriamycin, bleomycin, vincristine and dacarbazine, every two weeks, for 6 months. His wife Nicki, an obgyn, transferred her residency from Emory University in Atlanta to Miami so they could be together.
"It was a weird period. I mean, it made me feel good to keep doing things and not just lay idle," he said. "But by the second cycle of chemo, I was immunosuppressed and losing my hair and wore a face mask walking around the lab, which I was certainly self-conscious. But everyone around me didn't make me feel like an alien so I just went about my business."
The experience reinforced his desire to stay in immunology, especially after having taken the most toxic chemotherapies.
He stayed home the day after chemo when he felt his worst, then rested his body and timed exercise to give the drugs the best shot of targeting sick cells (a strategy, he says, that "could have been voodoo"). He also drank "an incredible" amount of fluids to help flush the toxins out of his system.
Side effects of the chemo, besides hair loss, included intense nausea, diarrhea, a loss of appetite, some severe lung toxicities that eventually resolved, and incredible fatigue.
"I've always been a runner, and I would even try to run while I was doing chemo," he said. "After I finished treatment, I would go literally 150 yards and just have to stop, and it took a lot of effort to work through it."
The experience reinforced his desire to stay in immunology, especially after having taken the most toxic chemotherapies.
"They worked, and I could tolerate them because I was young, but people who are older can't," Schreiber said. "The whole field of immunotherapy has really demonstrated that there are effective therapies out there that don't come with all of the same toxicities as the original chemo, so it was galvanizing to imagine contributing to finding some of those."
Schreiber went on to complete his MD and PhD degrees from the Sheila and David Fuente Program in Cancer Biology at the Miller School of Medicine and was nominated in 2011 as a Future Leader in Cancer Research by the American Association for Cancer Research. He also has numerous publications in the fields of tumor immunology and immunotherapy.
Sackstein, who was struck by Schreiber's enthusiasm and "boundless energy," predicts he will be a "major player in the world of therapeutics."
"The future for Taylor is amazing because he has the capacity to synthesize current knowledge and understand the gaps and then ask the right questions to establish new paradigms," said Sackstein, currently dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University. "It's a very unusual talent."
Since then, he has devoted his career to developing innovative techniques aimed at unleashing the immune system to attack cancer with less toxicity than chemotherapy and better clinical results—first, at a company called Heat Biologics and then at Pelican Therapeutics.
His primary work at Austin, Texas-based Shattuck is aimed at combining two functions in a single therapy for cancer and inflammatory diseases, blocking molecules that put a brake on the immune system (checkpoint inhibitors) while also stimulating the immune system's cancer-killing T cells.
The company has one drug in clinical testing as part of its Agonist Redirected Checkpoint (ARC) platform, which represents a new class of biological medicine. Two others are expected within the next year, with a pipeline of more than 250 drug candidates spanning cancer, inflammatory, and metabolic diseases.
Nine years after his own cancer diagnosis, Schreiber says it remains a huge part of his life, though his chances of a cancer recurrence today are about the same as his chances of getting newly diagnosed with any other cancer.
"I feel blessed to be in a position to help cancer patients live longer and could not imagine a more fulfilling way to spend my life," he says.