Italy’s ancient city of Rome is the birthplace of renowned medical scientist Pier Paolo Pandolfi. He started his academic career at the University of Perugia, located in Umbria, central Italy. There, he studied acute promyelocytic leukemia in great detail. His professional journey began in 1989 when he earned his master’s degree, and it continued with a Ph.D. in 1995. Pier’s insatiable curiosity drove him to pursue postgraduate studies at the prestigious Royal Postgraduate Medical School.
With 1994 drawing near, Pandolfi moved his research efforts to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Simultaneously, he added his molecular biology, pathology, and human genetics knowledge to the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences faculty. Ascending the ladder of success, he became the molecular and developmental biology lab leader at Sloan-Kettering and was appointed Chair of Cancer Biology and Genetics.
In 2007, Pandolfi began a new chapter in his remarkable career when he left Sloan-Kettering to take up the director position at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s recently established cancer genetics unit. As the George C. Reisman Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, his career path intersected with the esteemed halls of academia. Pandolfi added two more academic institutions to his list of connections when he joined Harvard University and the Broad Institute of MIT. When he was appointed head of the BIDMC Cancer Center and Cancer Research Institute in 2013, his career as a leader flourished even more.
Prestigious honors were bestowed on Pandolfi by his unwavering dedication to the field of cancer research, including the Pezcoller Foundation-American Association for Cancer Research International Award for Cancer Research (2011). In 2017, he received more recognition for his significant contributions to science when he became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Pier Paolo Pandolfi left a lasting legacy in the annals of medical science by embodying a never-ending pursuit of knowledge and a deep devotion to solving the enigma surrounding cancer throughout every stage of his career.
Our Interview With Pier Paolo Pandolfi
Question: What’s the most important thing we should know about you?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: I am passionate about what I do. I would like to see the world change for the better, as everyone else. Our goal is to cure cancer and alleviate suffering. Cancer is a devastating disease, and I know it firsthand, having lost both my parents to cancer. I spent the last 30 years working on the pursuit of a cancer-free world. And we will keep fighting this good fight. That said, I also love many other things. My upbringing was about music, literature, and philosophy.
Question: Name the most impactful lesson you learned from failure.
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: Failure makes you stronger and more focused. You must quickly learn how to restart, taking into account your errors and mistakes. Cancer research and care is, in a sense, a metaphor for life. We have lost so many battles and made so many false starts, and yet we have cured cancer as well. I was privileged to have been part of research efforts that led to the eradication of a form of leukemia. So, we now have a moral obligation to do it over again.
Question: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: We made several important discoveries throughout my research career that led to new cancer treatments and even cures. I am grateful and proud to have been able to participate in a phenomenal story that led to the eradication of a once-fatal form of leukemia called acute promyelocytic leukemia. This leukemia was considered incurable when I was in medical school and now, if properly treated, is considered fully and definitively curable.
Question: What did you waste the most time on when you were first starting your career?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: As I mentioned before, I did not start my career in medicine and research from the get-go. I started studying literature and philosophy instead. I also played the piano and studied music intensely. Lastly, I practiced a number of sports, which I still enjoy today, such as, for instance, racing sailing boats in a competitive manner. I would say that I do not regret any of these activities. Even though I ended up being a physician and a cancer scientist, I would take on all these distractions over and over because they made me much more open-minded and versatile.
Question: Name a tool you use for work that you can’t live without.
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: There is no discussion that to be a cancer scientist, you need the tools to do research and perform experiments, but there is also no discussion that we need computers, and with the launch of artificial intelligence, even more so. We will now need mega computers!! I still remember when we got the very first Apple computer: this little gray box…. We thought it was a revolution, and we didn’t yet know what was coming next!
Question: What is your favorite hobby, and why?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: Besides music, classical, and all genres, literature, movies, and theater, I like outdoor sports activities such as sailing, skiing, biking, and hiking very much.
Question: What excites you the most about your industry right now?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: I love the fact that after many years and many struggles, we are now able to tackle the cancer problem in an unprecedented manner. We really started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with new therapies such as, for instance, targeted therapies, immune therapies, and even cancer vaccines. This gives us an armamentarium, which is unprecedented. We sincerely hope to transform cancer into a treatable disease and no longer a death sentence.
Question: What concerns you most about your industry right now?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: The fact that the cost of some of these new medicines is simply unbearable. This puts a lot of stress on patients and governments. Additionally, the cost of the health system in the US is completely out of proportion and still spiraling. We need to pay attention to these aspects because in other countries, such as those of the European community as an example, this is not the case.
Question: What’s the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: To decide to switch from training in philosophy, literature, and music to a completely different career. My parents, at first, thought that I was crazy, but then, in the end, I was very happy with my decision, and they were too.
Question: Name one small habit that positively impacts your productivity.
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: Although I am totally able to multitask, I am also able to furiously concentrate on a problem. This constant focus allows you to ultimately crack the scientific problem and find a solution.
Question: What tips do you have for getting a seat at the table?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: You have to be able to assert your wisdom and intelligence when the time comes. Sometimes, this fires back because some of the leaders do not want to seek advice, but it is always worth trying.
Question: What book has made the biggest impact on your life?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: Several stunning novels, but I would say two philosophy books: “The Critique of Pure Reason” by the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant and “The tractatus logico philosophicus” by the Austrian Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: two groundbreaking philosophical masterpieces.
Question: Do you value intelligence or common sense more? Why?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: I greatly value and respect intelligence and creativity. This is at the core of what we do as scientists. However, without common sense, pure intelligence may get lost in translation.
Question: What would you consider to be the perfect day?
Pier Paolo Pandolfi: A beautiful sunny day in which you realize that you have found something important that can advance knowledge and provide a solution to a problem, in my case, the cancer problem.