Pillai Studies Immunology, Raps

Harvard Medical School Professor Shiv Pillai is an immunologist at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and teaches students at both the undergraduate and graduate level. He is currently interested in autoimmune diseases, the development of the immune system, and the role of the immune system in cancer.

The Harvard Crimson: How did you become interested in immunology?

Shiv Pillai: I became interested when I was quite young. The education system in India is very different, so I entered medical school and began conducting research when I was only 16. It was there that I began working on leprosy, a disease that is regulated by the immune system.I also remember one book in particular that inspired me—“Microbe Hunters” by Paul de Kruif—which I thought was fascinating.

THC: What brought you to the United States?

Pillai: I came to the United States after I received an invitation to join the Whitehead Institute [for Biomedical Research] at MIT. David Baltimore, an immunologist and Nobel Prize winner, was the director of the Whitehead for several years, and I worked there as a post-doctoral student during the mid 1980s.

THC: Can you tell us a little bit about your current research?Pillai: The work I’m doing now centers around the question of how genes contribute to autoimmune diseases. Why, or how, does genetic makeup lead to disease? Most of the other work we do is concerned with how basic types of immune cells develop in the human body. What are the stages in the development of immune cells from stem cells to their final form? Finally, we’re also looking to see what makes us susceptible to disease.

THC: How do you conduct most of your research?

Pillai: Since we can’t test on human subjects, a lot of our research is conducted on mice. We can genetically engineer mice to remove specific genes. It’s all so unbelievable—when I was your age, this would have been a pipe dream. Who knew we would one day be able isolate and target specific genes in model organisms? If you had asked me about my research back then, I would have told you that these are interesting questions but no one would ever know the answers. There was a revolution in biology in the 1970s and 1980s and recombinant DNA technology allowed scientists to chop DNA into bits in order to study and manipulate genes of choice. It was an exciting time to be working in this field, and it is inconceivable that we’ve come this far.

THC: What do you find to be the most difficult part of your job?

Pillai: When I talk to my students about science and medicine, it’s difficult to let them know what a challenge science can be. Those who go into science must be prepared for disappointment. A scientist takes a lot of risks, and it doesn’t always work out. You’ve got to stay upbeat and learn to take it in stride. You write papers, you get rejected, and you get used to it but you have to keep high standards. Today, funding is the most difficult problem in science, and it can be difficult to pursue science—especially when you’re young and trying to break into the field.

THC: It’s no secret to your students that you are a great rapper and poet. Is there anything that you would like to say about that?

Pillai: Well, I did a lot of theater in my youth—all of it amateur, of course. I’ve come to the conclusion that its my old my desire to be onstage that led me to teaching. I enjoy communicating and keeping things lively for students—my captive audience. Each year, I’m invited by medical school students to the “Second Year Show.” They parody lots of their professors, and each year they have someone up there rapping in an Indian accent—it’s clearly me. They give me a new name every year. I think this year it was “Sly Shiv Pillai.”

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