Q&A with Michael Mina

On July 1, 2019, the Department of Epidemiology welcomed Dr. Michael Mina as assistant professor. Dr. Mina comes to us from a clinical pathology residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School where he was Chief Resident in Pathology as well as a clinical research fellowship in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. 

Can you tell us a little about your research background?  What drew you to Public Health and specifically to the Harvard Chan School Epidemiology Department?

My research is largely at the interface of i) biological and laboratory work ii) epidemiology and mathematical modeling and iii) medicine and centers on infectious diseases, vaccines and tracking immunological responses. Starting back with my undergraduate research at Dartmouth College, which was a mix of biochemical engineering, microbiology and public health research, I have enjoyed the intertwining of disparate types of investigations. From the laboratory and medical perspective, having a firm understanding of statistics, epidemiology and coding can feel almost like a super power – albeit one that an increasing number of people enjoy as research becomes increasingly collaborative

At the Harvard Chan School Department of Epidemiology, I found a strong precedent of research that falls within this general philosophy of cross-pollinating disciplines. My (now) colleagues work across many disciplines. In particular in the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics (CCDD), where my lab is now based, investigators bring their mathematical and epidemiological backgrounds into their own labs and into collaborations with the closely aligned Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, where I have a secondary appointment. By any metric, these strong collaborations have resulted in critical discoveries that influence public health and drive new research around the world. This was the type of collaborative, forward-facing and leading research environment I was looking to join.

Two additional distinct items drew me to the Department of Epidemiology: i) first and foremost, a warm and collaborative environment for students and post-docs; and ii) a clear interest and willingness (particularly from our Chair Bert Hofman) to build increasingly strong ties with our neighboring institutions: Brigham and Women’s Hospital/HMS, where I continue to wear my MD hat as an Associate Medical Director of Clinical Microbiology, specifically in molecular virology in the Department of Pathology.

Combined, my anticipation is that building a lab and research program in the Department of Epidemiology will provide ample room to grow as an investigator, as a physician, a mentor, and as an expert in my areas of research.

You have stated that your current research goals fall under four major areas of investigation where you see the lab going:

  • Understanding the immunological and population-level consequences of measles infections and vaccines
  • Reconstructing past epidemics through high-throughput profiling of immune memory
  • Understanding development of immunity to infectious diseases in early childhood
  • Elucidating the broad heterologous benefits of vaccination

What drew you to these questions? What plans do you have for your lab when you start in your new role here?

My research centers on infectious diseases and vaccines and is tied by a common interest to bridge biomedical and laboratory work with epidemiological or mathematical models to address important public health questions. Vaccines are interesting not only for their direct importance to public health but also because they can be viewed as massive ecological experiments that provide unique windows into how human pathogens interact. By manipulating immunity through vaccination and in turn altering pathogen distributions, we have an opportunity to observe how the dynamics of other pathogens and infections change in response, and these offer new insights into the pathogen-human-pathogen interface. Ultimately, these types of observations can help uncover broad effects that wouldn’t usually be captured in traditional vaccine evaluations, despite potentially huge ‘off-target’ effects (for example an effect of measles or BCG vaccines to improve survival from all other infectious diseases).

Understanding these effects requires new biological and mathematical approaches and a lot of my work centers around development and applications of technologies for extremely high-throughput serology – where we simultaneously evaluate tens of thousands of immunological antibody responses in a blood sample. This magnifying glass on antibody memory, ultimately provides incredible windows into infectious disease dynamics that we can exploit for public health research – in my case surrounding ‘off-target’ vaccine effects and evaluations of the landscapes of immunity and infectious diseases.

What are you most excited about in your new role here in the Epi dept?

There are just too many interesting and puzzling questions and with each discovery the number increases exponentially. In light of this, I’m most excited to develop a research program and lab group that enhances the discovery and the questioning process in a way that I could not do on my own. I hope and expect that interactions with and between post-docs, students and many fantastic collaborators at HSPH and elsewhere will inevitably result in better research. I’m exciting to facilitate some of these interactions and to see what amazing new things we can learn and how we can apply them to improve health.

Outside of the science itself, I am genuinely excited (and a bit nervous) about building up a lab from scratch that is fun and enjoyable for all (or realistically most) of the members and that becomes known for being collaborative and open and provides an environment – especially for younger researchers – to grow and learn about what they do and do not love to do. That’s one overarching non-science goal, and I am excited to see how it works out.

Is there anything else that your colleagues may not know already about you that you can tell us?

Well, I’ll answer with some basics. I live with my partner Sarah, we recently bought a house just down the road in JP, near the pond. Sarah’s an artist and producer – her artwork in Boston is mostly food & restaurant photography, so if you are a foodie and peruse restaurant websites or Boston Eater website, you’ll likely see some of it. I’m also an artist on occasion – pottery, charcoal drawing, and origami – and recently Sarah and I have been building furniture – we made our couch from scratch! (FYI: I’m not sure I’d recommend it). I have an identical twin and we have three older siblings, one of whom many think may as well be a triplet. I expect that they will be visiting from time to time, and I’m sure I’ll bring them around to meet people and see the school. So you might at times see someone that looks like me but is not, and although we are quite used to it, it can be awkward if you do not know.

Finally, my door is always open and I am very much looking forward to meeting everyone at HSPH and am very excited to be here.

Save-the-Date: Dr. Mina will kick off the Epi Dept Seminar Series on Wednesday, September 4, 1:00-1:50pm in Kresge 502 with a talk titled: Why measles is the master childhood infection.

-Coppelia Liebenthal