Though he has spent much of his career toiling in research over models and figures, Harvard School of Public Health Epidemiology Professor Marc Lipsitch is no stranger to talking to people about science.
The epidemiologist is a more frequent social media user than many of his peers; between posting brief nuggets of explanation about his latest discoveries and shouting out his colleagues’ work to the general public, by last year, he had amassed a modest Twitter following of around 4,000 users, according to his postdoc, Pamela P. Martinez.
“I've always enjoyed science communication,” Lipsitch said. “I just find it fun, and I also find that I learn a lot.”
But beginning in early March — when an outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic first began to sweep the United States in earnest — Lipsitch’s follower count saw a rapid ascent; now, it sits at around 188,000.
As people scrambled to learn about the little-understood enemy suddenly derailing their lives, Lipsitch — a preeminent scholar on infectious diseases and pandemic response — said he saw an important role he might play. Drawing off experiences in the classroom and the newsroom, he became not just a leading COVID-19 researcher, but also an ambassador for the scientific community, distilling complex concepts down to tweets, op-eds, and sound bites the public could understand.
According to friends and colleagues, Lipsitch’s role as interpreter stems from a longstanding commitment to science communications, expertise in both advising governments and conducting research, and strong ethical imperatives.
“His leadership has really shone through in this particular epidemic...in his ability to corral researchers and epidemiologists around the state, around the country to do all of this [research] while serving as an advisor to governments and international entities,” said epidemiology professor Michael J. Mina. “I think it's just been extraordinary how much of his wisdom he's been willing and able to share and including in the press, of course, and in the media.”
“All of those combined, I think it's only fitting that he has emerged as one of the leading epidemiologists surrounding this epidemic,” Mina added.
Lipsitch said in an interview with The Crimson in early May that he took a “winding path” to reach the field of epidemiology. While he found that he enjoyed learning about plants and animals and modeling their populations in a freshman ecology class at Yale University, he nonetheless wound up as a philosophy major.
“As a college student, I really also liked philosophy and decided I should do the less profitable thing while I was being supported to do my studies,” Lipsitch said. “If I wanted to do biology, maybe I could support myself doing that later.”
Despite his serendipitous focus on philosophy as an undergraduate, Lipsitch continued to explore his interest in ecology and dynamical systems, spending a few summers learning how to combine math and biology at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.
After winning a Rhodes Scholarship, he said, he planned to obtain a second bachelor’s degree in biology — but again, “sort of by accident,” his plans changed.
“When I got there, I got talked out of it and just told, ‘Why don't you just do a graduate degree?’ which was a little bit odd, since I hadn't done very much as an undergrad,” Lipsitch said. “But I jumped in.”
Five years later, he found himself graduating from University of Oxford with a doctoral degree in zoology. After receiving more theoretical training in zoology and population dynamics, Lipsitch joined a lab run by Bruce R. Levin, an Emory University biology professor. It was in Levin’s lab that Lipsitch began working on evolution and response to vaccines and antibiotics — an area of interest he would sustain throughout his academic career.
During his time at Emory, Lipsitch also worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he first encountered the close relationship between epidemiology and biology.
“I was following in the CDC tradition that biology can inform epidemiology,” Lipsitch said. “I was working in the lab and talking a lot to the epidemiologists — I think that's where I began to realize how complementary those two types of research really are. We can learn a lot about how things work in humans from studying them in animals.”
“What became more clear to me is that going the other direction, and learning about what parts of mechanistic biology are really important by studying the patterns in humans, is equally interesting and equally rewarding,” he added.
Lipsitch’s unconventional path has in turn allowed him to amass a diverse portfolio of research.
In addition to his longstanding interests in the evolutionary biology of bacteria and drug resistance in bacteria, he has also studied methods for analyzing disease data and for informing responses to pandemics. Other areas of interest include disease transmission, immunology, and vaccine development.
His training in philosophy in part precipitated his involvement in science policy discussions. In recent years, for instance, he has become heavily involved in debates over the ethics of gain-of-function experiments — controversial experiments to create more transmissible viruses in labs.
“He has an unbelievable capacity to focus on many projects at the same time — the breadth of his interests and his expertise is enormous,” said Richard Malley, an infectious diseases professor at Boston Children’s Hospital and Lipsitch’s longtime collaborator.
“The areas of concentration that Marc has worked on are so extensive that it’s hard to understand how somebody can be so masterful in so many areas,” Malley added.
Lipsitch said he has found his wide range of research interests and collaborations to be “crucial” to tackling some of the unexpected and unknown challenges posed by COVID-19.
“Having a thriving set of research programs around the country and around the world, in different groups, on a whole range of pathogens and ways of studying them... is really crucial when you face a pandemic,” Lipsitch said. “You don't know what you're going to face, and you don't know which types of approaches are going to be useful, and you don't know which problems are going to pop up that you maybe were studying in a totally different context.”
“It really turns out to be, in my opinion, critical to have this infrastructure that you build up during so-called ‘peacetime,’ and then you draw on during pandemics,” he added.
Thanks to his training, Lipsitch has become well-versed over the years in both battling pandemics as a researcher himself, and on advising governments on how best to do so.
During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, he served on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Working Group, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Team B,” an elite group of academic researchers and outside advisors.
He has also advised the Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, and various governments such as Canada and Mexico on infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance.
Lipsitch has drawn off this experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, participating in weekly WHO calls with modellers from across the globe and serving on the committee guiding the University’s response to the virus.
At the state level, he is chairing a committee to advise Governor Charles D. Baker ’79 on creating a “data driven policy” for the state, according to Mina.
He has also received requests for advice on coronavirus response from governments across the world, including Canada and Israel.
“I got a call from the Prime Minister of Israel who just wanted to talk about what they were doing,” Lipsitch said. “That's a level of advice that I've never been asked to do before and has been really interesting.”
Lipsitch himself has taken on a number of projects related to the virus. With his colleagues and trainees, he has investigated the design of vaccine trials for the novel coronavirus, antibody response to vaccines or prior infection, and the virus’s seasonality.
“It’s an absolute map or sort of guide book for future research in the things we're going to be doing going through the pandemic. It has enormous, enormous implications,” epidemiology professor William P. Hanage said of Lipsitch’s work on seasonality.
Much of Lipsitch’s research has been made possible by the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, a School of Public Health research center he founded in 2009.
The CCDD is unique among similar centers, Lipsitch said, because its affiliates boast an unparalleled diversity of fields and areas of expertise. Members work collaboratively in disciplines ranging from machine learning to evolutionary biology; all, however, specialize in infectious diseases, including pandemic response.
“I really am just more reinforced in this idea that you have to have well supported generalists who integrate different types of data and really go after problems,” Lipsitch said. “That's the kind of people who can address the pandemic.”
His colleagues at CCDD, including immunology and infectious diseases professor Yonatan H. Grad and Hanage, said Lipsitch’s work during the pandemic has been “prolific.”
“I've been astonished by how prolific and seemingly indefatigable he is,” Grad said. “He has maintained a pretty incredible pace of productivity on both the academic front and also on the science communication front.”
“I think he must have cloned himself in his lab, and there are actually several Marc Lipsitchs running around,” Hanage added.
While Lipsitch said it has been “really enjoyable” to communicate more with the public during the pandemic, he also pointed out that “providing science-based advice to the public” is typically a government function.
“It has been incredibly time consuming and, frankly, is something that would be less necessary if the federal government was more visibly out front on providing science-based advice to the public,” Lipsitch said.
But in the face of a lack of adequate federal communications, Lipsitch said he feels it is scientists’ duty to take up the role of public communicator, interpreting the information they learn as the public health crisis continues.
“I think it's been obligatory for people in the academic sector and others to try to provide that voice of… ‘what do we know?’ and ‘what do we not know?’” Lipsitch said.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Lipsitch said he made the conscious decision to dedicate significant amounts of his time to both research and to scientific communication. During the pandemic, he has penned several opinion pieces in the New York Times and scientific journals explaining some of the more complicated aspects of the virus to the general public.
He has also taken to social media to dispel falsehoods and misconceptions surrounding the novel coronavirus while also sharing a selection of findings from scientists across the world with his followers.
In fact, Lipsitch’s vested interest in scientific communication stretches back to his time as a graduate student. For instance, in the mid-1990s, he penned two articles for the New York Times — one explaining a pregnancy-related scientific discovery, and another analyzing the fear behind bacterial antibiotic resistance.
“There are a million things I could do that a lot of other people could do better than I can or as well as I can,” Lipsitch said. “There are a few things that I both enjoy more than most people and I'll probably do as good a job as anyone would. Science communication is one of those.”
He said scientific communication was a skill one of his Ph.D. advisors, the late Robert M. May, greatly emphasized.
“I very strongly remember him saying, ‘If the freakin’ person can't explain it, it's their fault. They don't understand it,’” Lipsitch said.
Levin, his postdoctoral advisor, said the ability to communicate ideas simply has gained Lipsitch more public influence than many other academics.
“Scientists can sometimes be so removed that nobody understands what they're getting at even when they're right — or, for that matter, when they're wrong,” Levin said. “We can all get into our precious academic holes and stay there, and influence nobody, but that's not been the case for Marc.”
Those around Lipsitch say one of his defining traits is a willingness to respect and promote the careers, views, and voices of colleagues and trainees alike.
“Really good mentors often treat their trainees as colleagues,” said Sarah Cobey, a University of Chicago ecology and evolution professor and former postdoctoral fellow of Lipsitch. “He absolutely did.”
When mentoring students and when teaching classes, Lipsitch said he prefers an active approach, involving a lot of time at the whiteboard — or, since the pandemic struck, in front of a tablet.
Some of his trainees said he can often be found at the whiteboard during lab meetings, working through mathematical equations and trying to solve problems on the spot.
“He actually engages in the details of the research,” postdoctoral fellow Martinez said. “He will stand up with me in front of the whiteboard and say, ‘Okay, let's try to figure out how to fix this part that you are stuck on.’”
For former Ph.D. student Matt D. Hitchings, Lipsitch’s support significantly “altered the path” of his career. At the beginning of his time in graduate school, Hitchings had been interested in working with Doctors Without Borders, but was having trouble reaching the right people in the organization. Lipsitch — who had co-authored a paper with the director of the organization’s epidemiology department — helped Hitchings establish contact.
“He barely knew me at that point, but he gave me a good recommendation,” Hitchings said. “That turned into two internships in consecutive summers, and I'm still working with them to this day, six years later.”
Fourth-year graduate student Christine R. Tedijanto, who currently works with Lipsitch, emphasized the encouragement he provides as an advisor and mentor.
“He really believes in your work and advocates for you to step up and push that work beyond even what I think it can be,” Tedijanto said. “He doesn't think that just because you're a student, you can't do great science.”
Known to take his lab on bowling excursions and encourage a lighthearted working environment, many of Lipsitch’s trainees and colleagues said he cares about them beyond their scientific contributions to his lab.
“He created an environment that not only prioritized the highest quality science and trying to identify and answer important questions that contribute to science and public health, but also doing so in a community that prized integrity and generosity and kindness,” said Grad, who worked with Lipsitch as a former postdoctoral fellow before joining CCDD as a faculty member.
Grad added that among Lipsitch’s many “impressive traits,” the predominant one is simply being “a good person.”
“I think that's the key thing about Marc. Not only does he do work at the vanguard in the field, actually at the vanguard of several fields, but he is someone we all trust and like and admire.” Grad said. “Really an exceptional human being.”
Similarly, asked to describe his former mentee in a nutshell, Levin said Lipsitch fully embodies the word “mensch,” a Yiddish term for a person of integrity
“He's a kind and compassionate and caring person beyond science,” Levin said.
—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.