HHMI Gilliam Fellow Jonathan Abraham
Abraham on the Value of Early Opportunity
For initiatives such as HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) and the Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study—both of which are designed to support science students from disadvantaged backgrounds—success stories don’t come much better than that of Jonathan Abraham.
An alumnus of EXROP and a current Gilliam Fellow, Abraham’s work as a Harvard University M.D./Ph.D. student is already making waves in the science of infectious disease.
As an undergraduate, Abraham studied viral mechanics in the Harvard lab of HHMI investigator Stephen C. Harrison. In 2007, by then a graduate student and Gilliam Fellow, Abraham returned to Harrison’s lab for a new collaboration—one that resulted in drug targets for the New World hemorrhagic fevers, viral diseases that afflict rural communities in South America. Here, Abraham talks about his Haitian heritage, the importance of helping underprivileged communities, and what’s next for his budding biomedical career.
Q: How has your Haitian background motivated your work?
A: Although my parents left Haiti several decades ago, my Haitian roots serve as a steady anchor for my research in diseases that affect impoverished nations. My current work focuses on viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever syndromes in rural regions of South America. I have a growing interest in Dengue virus, which can also cause hemorrhagic fever and is increasingly recognized as a cause of adult and pediatric disease in Haiti.
I see my basic science research and medical training as a way of eventually giving back and honoring the sacrifices my parents made when they emigrated to Canada and the United States.
Q: What early experiences influenced your passion for science?
A: My high school assistant principal of science, Dr. Janice Sutton, introduced me to science research when I first moved to the United States and landed in Queens, NY. Most of the students in my high school were from disadvantaged backgrounds, and Dr. Sutton saw science research as a chance for us to broaden our opportunities and gain access to higher-level education.
When I was a senior, Dr. Sutton urged me to contact several labs for research opportunities. I was thrilled when someone at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories responded. My parents would drive me deep into Long Island every weekend, and they would spend several hours waiting in the parking lot as I learned about Arabidopsis thaliana genetics. I was assigned a small project, attended numerous science fairs, got to travel around the country, and made a lot of new friends. From then on, I was hooked.
Q: How has working with Stephen C. Harrison changed you as a scientist?
A: Professor Harrison is an amazing mentor. He constantly pushed me to think critically and creatively about ways to attack problems in the lab. He also taught me the importance of hard work, dedication, and attention to both the big picture and details in conducting rigorous science. This is especially important in structural biology, and Professor Harrison always focuses on the biological implications of our structural work. Working with him has allowed me to formulate a clear picture of the kind of scientist I aspire to be one day.
Q: How did you narrow your focus to infectious diseases?
A: These diseases have far-reaching effects that threaten the medical and socioeconomic health of low-income communities. There is a lack of financial incentive to study a number of these diseases, but I firmly believe that their socioeconomic consequences should also be factored in the calculus. I therefore hope to dedicate my career to finding innovative ways to tackle these diseases head-on.
Q: What aspect of your work do you find most rewarding?
A: Sharing my research with the greater public. I enjoy drawing on the chalkboard and coming up with analogies to explain my work to high school students when I have the opportunity to do so. For example, when explaining how viruses sneak into cells, I describe cellular receptors as locks, and viral entry proteins as keys. I then ask students to think of ways of blocking viral entry, and I am always impressed by their clever suggestions. Boiling down my research to the basics also reminds me of the bigger picture.