Pulling Back the Curtain: Benjamin Ebert, MD, PhD

Benjamin Ebert, MD, PhD
Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School

What was your first job? 
In high school, I built up a little business for myself as a math tutor for kids of all ages – kindergarten through high school. This is when I first realized that I enjoy teaching. So many of the kids I tutored who had trouble in math were actually just afraid of it; my role was often just to help them realize that it wasn’t that hard, and they became excited to be able to do it.

I see that still today: clinicians may think that biochemistry is difficult, geneticists may think that clinical medicine is impenetrable, and biochemists may think computational approaches are unfathomable, but all these scientists can understand the other disciplines given time and effort.

Is there any other career you can see yourself in besides medicine?
Despite a distinct lack of talent, I always thought I’d enjoy being an architect. The idea of creating something with a defined set of tools and approaches appeals to me in the same way as scientific research. Both have the potential for tremendous creativity within physical or technical constraints. My mother is an artist and photographer, but I, unfortunately, did not inherit her artistic talents. My attempts at making drawings in gross anatomy class in medical school were indecipherable.

What started you on your path to medicine?
My father is a psychiatrist and a scientist. We lived in Bethesda, Maryland, when he was working at the National Institutes of Health, so I was exposed to both clinical medicine and research from an early age, and continued to be exposed to medical research and science throughout my life.

Before we moved to Bethesda, my father worked in Boston, and I was born at the Boston Lying-In Hospital, which is only a couple of buildings away from where I currently work. So, I’ve come full circle.

Have you had any mentors or teachers who have had a big impact on your career?
Mentorship has absolutely defined my career interests and development. Among many role models and advisors I’ve had over the years, three very important mentors come to mind.

My PhD advisor at Oxford University, Peter Ratcliffe, first taught me how to be a scientist. He has an extraordinary ability to focus on scientific problems, analyze them from every possible angle, and figure out the most definitive experiment to arrive at the most definitive answer.

In medical school, I worked with Frank Bunn, who received ASH’s Wallace H. Coulter Award in 2009. He embodies the career and the person that I have most wanted to emulate. He has contributed enormously scientifically, he is a tremendous clinician, and he is a masterful teacher. In addition to his achievements in medicine, he has a wonderful family and many deep outside interests. Frank’s influence is the primary reason that I become a hematologist.

My post-doctoral mentor, Todd Golub, taught me to think big, to ask the most important questions, to have the courage to address really difficult problems, to articulate these problems with clarity, and to take advantage of new technologies to answer longstanding questions. He remains a close colleague, mentor, and role model.

When you’re interviewing someone for a position, what questions will you ask to get better insight into the candidate?
It really depends on the candidate – particularly when I’m hiring somebody to work directly with me. I tend to prioritize selecting someone who is nice and intelligent, rather than worrying too much about whether the individual has the precise skills and background we need. For the most part, knowledge and techniques can be learned quickly on-the-job.

In interviews, I tend to have a very conversational style so I can get away from pre-planned responses and get a better sense of someone’s personality and thinking. For scientists, I do ask them to tell me about their research, because, again, it’s an opportunity to explore beyond rehearsed answers, to probe scientific understanding more deeply, and to see how the interviewee thinks through experiments, and how they interpret results.

For me, the most interesting interviews are fun conversations when I have a chance to discuss the candidate’s experiences and pursuits at significant depth, revealing how well they understand certain areas and what they are like as a person.

Also, because so much of what we do is extremely collaborative, it is important to get a feel for how the applicant will work with the other team members. We work hard to cultivate a friendly and collaborative community in the lab.

What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
The accomplishments that have made me feel the most proud have been following the progress of my mentees. I find it extremely exciting and rewarding to see trainees gain confidence as researchers, become independent investigators, and flourish scientifically and clinically.

In a typical day what is your rose and what is your thorn?
Coming home in the evening and seeing my kids is the best moments of my day. They drop whatever doing and jump on top of me. It tends to be a little over-the-top and silly, but it’s great fun.

At work, the best moments are talking through experiments with members in my lab; it’s exciting to hear about new data and ideas, and to dissect difficult problems. Those conversations are fun, enriching, challenging, and rewarding. Professionally, those high-level scientific discussions are a highlight of my day.

As far as the thorns, we all have to deal with a substantial burden of bureaucratic tasks – progress reports, forms that need to be filled out, or the administrative hassles of travel – that seem to consume too many good hours of the day. I am always looking for strategies to streamline those processes.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
Keeping the balance between work and outside life is one of the most important things for medical students and people at the beginning of their careers to keep in mind. The number of things one is asked to do rapidly exceeds the available time, so prioritizing and deciding what you can and cannot agree to do is essential.

Right now, my wife and I have three small children, and my wife is a full-time academic like myself. So, in some ways, setting aside time to focus on non-work life is not a question, it’s essential for the family. Our kids – an 8-year-old son, five-year-old daughter, and two-year-old daughter – are demanding of attention and are completely consuming when we are with them. When I’m home, I switch off the “work” part of my brain and pick up a completely different set of concerns – someone is always needing help with something, crying, or wanting to talk – but also a completely different set of pleasures.

When you do get time outside of work, how do you spend it?
I used to run more seriously, and I was a competitive cyclist and triathlete. Having young kids, though, has significantly quashed that for the time being — coming home from work and then going out for a run by myself is not really an option at this stage.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
I can juggle five balls and used to own juggling torches. I was a math major in college, and juggling is big with the math types, and I was president of the Juggler’s Vein, the Williams College juggling club, and we used to put on performances.

What superpower would you have, and why?
I really should consult my eight-year-old son on this question, because he could talk at considerable length about the advantages and disadvantages of every superpower. From my less informed perspective, I would probably go with the ability to time travel.

It would, of course, be extraordinary to experience different eras. From a scientific perspective, it would be such fun to find out, in the future, how all of the problems we are trying to solve turn out. I would also like to take my kids to the past so they could see that there was, in fact, a time before smartphones and iPads. This is currently inconceivable to them.