This is Optimism Works, a series that interviews people who, through optimism, have made achievements in their life and career. Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, has been hard at work developing a vaccine for COVID-19 amidst the current pandemic. Throughout his long career in medicine, though, Dr. Hotez has also devoted himself to important advocacy and policy issues, leading programs of “vaccine diplomacy” in the face of opposition and resistance, thanks to his resilience and optimistic outlook.
Dr. Peter Hotez always aspired to be a scientist, and always with the aim to advance his science towards humanitarian goals. Forty years ago, he began working to develop vaccines for poverty-related neglected diseases as an MD-PhD student at Rockefeller University and Cornell, and he has continued on that path, helping several neglected disease vaccines advance into clinical trials. Along the way, he’s worked to raise awareness about the widespread nature of neglected infections of poverty; to combat the rising anti-vaccine and anti-science movements in Texas and the nation; and, now, to keep our national response to COVID-19 from grinding to a halt while the pandemic rages on. His has been a life of science in the pursuit of improving the world and speaking out to help those with no voice—a life of science for social justice.
When did you first decide that you wanted to work in healthcare?
My priority was always developing new vaccines for diseases of the poor. But I felt it was important to also become a pediatrician in order to know in-depth how our vaccines might be used in vulnerable populations. This realization came to me as an MD-PhD student in New York.
When you were getting started, what feelings do you remember having about that goal?
For me, the commitment to healthcare and social justice was cemented when I made my first visit to Central America during the early 1990s. I was at Hospital Roosevelt, the public hospital in Guatemala City, and saw kids with severe malnutrition, worms, Chagas disease, and other parasitic and neglected infections. I remember wondering how the U.S., the world’s wealthiest nation, could allow such suffering to continue right under its nose? It was then that I realized I wouldn’t reduce global suffering by remaining exclusively in the laboratory—I also needed to speak out and fight for social justice. So my struggle has been balancing my science—keeping up with grants, papers, and lab meetings—with public engagement activities.
What was the very first step you took? How did you stay on track?
A big first step for me was leaving the comfort of Yale University as a junior faculty member to move to Washington D.C., where I became chair of microbiology at George Washington University. This afforded a unique opportunity for me to influence policy makers in D.C. and led to my first big initiative in global health policy working with the U.S. Congress and Bush White House to introduce legislation and appropriations for neglected tropical diseases. Later, serving as U.S. Science Envoy in the White House and State Department, I led international efforts in vaccine diplomacy. Ever since, I’ve tried to balance a life in science, science policy, and advocacy.
I always remind young people, “If science were easy, everyone would do it.”
Describe the moments when you felt like giving up. Why didn’t you?
I don’t know that I ever felt like giving up, but there were times in my career when I struggled to influence policy makers to accept how neglected diseases both occur in the setting of poverty and actually promote poverty. It was especially challenging to get buy-in among elected leaders, and for them to accept how neglected tropical diseases occur among the poor in the U.S., especially in the U.S. Gulf Coast states, including Texas. This is an ongoing battle.
Another ongoing struggle is the harassment I face combating anti-vaccine and anti-science movements across the nation. I’m often in this battle alone, as the U.S. Government and many philanthropic foundations are reluctant to move into this space.
Where have you found support along the way?
Some of my biggest supporters have been the NIAID NIH, the Gates Foundation, and the Kleberg Foundation. The Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine rolled the dice with me (us) to help build a new school devoted to poverty-related neglected diseases, and also a center for vaccine development. I’m especially grateful to my two bosses, Dr. Paul Klotman, BCM President, and Mr. Mark Wallace, the Texas Children’s Hospital CEO. Other organizations and individuals for which I’m especially grateful include: Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, my science partner for the last twenty years; Tito’s Vodka (Love, Tito’s); JPB Foundation; Steve Papermaster and his family; and the Southwest Electronic Energy Medical Research Foundation.
And I have found unwavering support in Ann, my wife for the last 33 years. She gives me great courage to speak out for the poor and vulnerable populations. This has been especially important in 2020, helping me go up against anti-science disinformation campaigns and speak up for our Hispanic communities now being decimated by COVID-19.
What has been surprisingly hard? Surprisingly easy?
For me, the key is resilience and staying optimistic. Taking on big projects and working towards ambitious goals means that failures are inevitable. Even at this stage in my career, we’re still turned down for scientific grants or have papers rejected. I always remind young people, “If science were easy, everyone would do it.” If you don’t receive opposition, it might mean you’re not taking sufficient risks or being ambitious enough.
A goal I had (and achieved) later in life was to write a book. I’ve always admired writers, and I love books and the literary world. I began writing my first book when I was fifty years old. Now, I’m 62 and have my fourth single author book coming out next year. You are never too old to learn new things and take on new challenges.
How do you define success?
For me, success is achieving something I find meaningful and I know has made a difference in the world, even if it doesn’t always gain widespread recognition. Like with writing my books—even if they’re not even close to becoming best-sellers, seeing them published has given me tremendous personal satisfaction because I find that work meaningful. I also consider my efforts against anti-science movements a success, despite others’ resistance. Being recognized by B’nai Brith International, Ronald McDonald House, and Research!America means a lot to me because of my associations with the Jewish community and, of course, the research advocacy and policy communities.
How does optimism play a role in this goal, and your future goals?
Next to resilience, I believe the most important predictor of success is having an optimistic outlook, followed by passion and commitment. Of course, all of these things reinforce one another. But that combination of resilience, optimism, and passion represent a true formula for success. They’re also essential features for weathering difficult times. For me, it wasn’t easy focusing on solving global problems with a wife and four children and not a lot of money (being an academic). It was especially challenging with one child that has special needs and disabilities. But optimism, resilience, and passion (and, of course, having Ann by my side) carried the day.
Another key is finding a meaningful goal and taking simple pleasure in the incremental steps it takes to get there. Take pleasure in the journey! When writing my books, I enjoyed submitting the manuscript, revising it, receiving the page proofs, getting an advanced reader copy—all of which were important milestones for me.
What advice do you have for other people, trying to do what you’ve done?
Something I enjoy doing is mentoring young people. Over the years, and with dozens of graduate students, medical students, undergraduates, postdocs, and even junior faculty, I’ve done a “whiteboard” exercise in which I ask two questions: “What does success look like for you in 10-15 years?” and “What major problem do you want to solve in life?” Almost always, the immediate response is, “Gee, no one has ever asked me those questions before.” But these questions are really important because the answers help diagram multiple pathways in order to draw a clearer life roadmap. We don’t do enough to help young people envision the big picture and understand that they have the power to achieve greatness. This understanding requires goals and a deliberate path. Even if one’s goals change over time, I find having a roadmap is essential for success.