A Conversation with Stephen J. Russell: M.D., Ph.D., Director of Molecular Medicine at Mayo Clinic

Welcome to my conversation with Stephen J. Russell M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Russell is the Director of Molecular Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He also leads the program in oncolytic virotherapy, the practice of using viruses to treat cancer. The connotation  typically associated with viruses is that they are destructive agents; however, they are (intuitively) quite helpful when used and replicated to destroy other destructive forces. Essentially, when used in the proper context, viruses can preferentially infect and kill cancer cells. Dr. Russell’s decision to pursue this specialized area began after he received the terrible new of his sister’s death in a house fire.  He was in his third year of medical school at the time.

To distract himself from the devastating circumstances of his sister’s death, he read his Microbiology texts on the train ride home to her funeral. When reading a section about viruses, he describes that “it was then I decided that this was nature’s last untapped bioresource.”

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He did not stray from this focus when pursuing positions out of medical school; however, he quickly learned that his desire to cure cancer using viruses was not exactly the answer that the interviewers wanted when asking him what his career ambitions were. After going through several interviews and receiving no offers, he asked his wife what he might be doing wrong. The interviews for other candidates seemed to span a half hour, whereas his ended abruptly after ten minutes. And that end seemed to come, strangely, after he answered that very question of what he wanted to do. His wife advised: the number one rule of interviewing for a job is that you need to express interest in the job you’re interviewing for. So, quickly, Dr. Russell’s response changed to “I want to be a surgeon” instead of “I want to cure cancer using viruses” and the job offers appeared. He simply states, chuckling, “I learned.”

We also discussed balancing the need to play to what interviewers expect versus being honest and true to one’s own motivations in the context of medical school applications, and how it is impossible to tell someone’s true capabilities and personality from an application or even an interview. In regards to the medical school application process, Dr. Russell claims that “As soon as you set the rules of engagement, then people very rapidly get to understand those rules of engagement and they play to it. I think the people who can sell that message best are put at an advantage.”

Diving more into his experience as a doctor, he describes how even the most grueling schedules benefitted his practice in the end.

“My worst ever weekend I think I got two hours of sleep between Friday morning and Monday evening…but when you look back at that, it was priceless experience.”

I think it took me a few moments to fully recognize the gravity of this statement in our conversation…two hours of sleep in roughly 84 hours. However, do not despair, pre-med students. Dr. Russell looks back on his experience as a doctor fondly, exclaiming:

“I know that is has been a wonderful career for me.  It’s just a huge privilege to be a doctor. People come in and they tell you all their secrets, and they trust themselves to you. It is a huge privilege to be in that position and you learn a lot from anyone you interact with…But also, it’s like never a dull moment! Everything’s different all the time. Life becomes a great, big problem-solving exercise.”

After holding appointments at hospitals in England and Scotland, Dr. Russell received a call from the prestigious Mayo clinic with an offer to lead their new gene therapy program. He initially thought the call was a mistake, and they wanted him to be a faculty member, not the leader of the entire program. Shocked, he gladly accepted the position, moved to America, and has immensely enjoyed the environment that Mayo Clinic creates in his work as a physician and researcher ever since. The clinic’s work is so patient-centered that there is less pressure to move through appointments in a mechanistic manner to stay within time requirements. Of course, those constraints still exist, but not to the extent that they do in many other medical settings. Generally, there are constant reminders of whom the research affects. This is intensified for Dr. Russell, because he is both a practicing doctor and a researcher. He comments on the dynamic of having both an M.D. and a Ph.D., and how interacting with patients influences his approach to research.

“It’s painful when you have a patient who needs something and you don’t have anything. Maybe it increases the frustration if you’re actually running a research program that has the potential down the road to help them. It makes you want to accelerate things. And you can’t accelerate them beyond a certain speed.”

Along with all of these inevitable frustrations that come in passing through the necessary FDA requirements to give a treatment to a patient, and all of the eligibility requirements that individual has to meet to receive that treatment once it is approved, there are undeniably positive aspects to conducting scientific research.

“I think the most important discoveries in science are the unexpected results. If you are technically skilled and you get an unexpected result, and you’re confident in what you’ve done, then you can really move on and starting thinking “Why?”

There is much more we didn’t cover in these video clips, such as some of the most positive aspects of working at Mayo Clinic. Watch my full conversation with Dr. Stephen Russell here:

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Speak to you soon,

-Nora

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