The Path To Discovery
As an undergraduate at Northeastern, Dr. Andrew Schafer, LA’69 would often see the sun rise from a lab on campus.
“I would do my experiments at night, not infrequently working in the lab until dawn, struggling mightily and often unsuccessfully to just learn basic techniques,” he said. “After washing and autoclaving my own glassware – I would try to carry out the actual experiments by myself.”
Now Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University, and Physician-in-Chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Schafer was first drawn to medical research during his time as a young student in Northeastern’s Department of Biology.
“Northeastern was filled with brilliant professors who were completely dedicated to teaching and mentoring,” he said. In his sophomore year, he found his own mentor, the late Professor Charles Gainor, a prominent microbiologist.
“I had never even stepped foot in a research lab before that time,” he explained, “but Dr. Gainor took me under his wing. We devised a project to isolate virulence genes from the microorganism, Agrobacterium tumefaciens – the bug that causes crown gall tumors in plants.”
Schafer and Dr. Gainor found time each day to have intensive tutorials in the theory of microbial genetics. “He was tough, critical and very kind,” said Schafer. “I had become infected for life with a passion for medical research and experimentation.”
Schafer’s Northeastern connection had started years before he became a student. “My father, Stephen Schafer, JD, was a Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern, who was famous for founding the field of ‘victimology’ – the study of victims of crime,” said Schafer. “He had been a prominent lawyer in Hungary, from where we escaped in 1957 after the Hungarian Revolution, but then had to reinvent himself as a sociologist at the age of 50.”
Throughout his time at Northeastern, Schafer lived at home with his parents and commuted to Northeastern with his father every day. “From my father I gained a love of scholarship,” said Schafer, “and some of his work ethic.”
After graduating from Northeastern in 1969, Dr. Schafer went on to the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in pursuit of medical research and education.
Following this path, Schafer has made exceptional contributions to the field of medical research. With broad-ranging expertise in such areas as thrombosis, coagulation, and bleeding disorders, he has penned more than 210 original articles, and acted as editor for six books. He has been continuously funded as principal investigator by the National Institutes of Health for nearly thirty years.
“Northeastern was the incubator for my pursuit of medical science,” said Schafer. “It is where I learned to appreciate the critical importance of dedicated teaching and mentoring. None of my classmates came from privileged backgrounds, many of them were first-generation college students. They lacked absolutely nothing in ambition, drive, diligence, focus, and resilience in the face of adversity. I learned a lot from my wonderful professors, but probably even more from my fellow students.”
In contrast to his long, solitary hours conducting research as an undergraduate at Northeastern, Schafer believes that the future of medicine will require collaboration – rather than individual efforts.
“The future of medical discovery is transdisciplinary ‘team research,'” he explained. “This kind of collaborative approach will supersede – but not replace – medical research traditionally conducted by individuals in segregated departmental silos.”
Looking back, he is grateful for the role that his early mentor played in the discovery of this life’s direction. “Whatever I have contributed to medical science, and whatever I have learned to become a mentor and teacher, I owe entirely to Professor Gainor and Northeastern!”
To current undergraduates, Schafer said, “A career in academic medicine provides virtually unlimited career options and combinations of options, including the practice of medicine, teaching, basic or clinical research, writing, leadership in medical organizations, and health policy. My advice to current undergraduates interested in pursuing this career is to learn mental toughness, discipline and resilience. Most importantly find your own mentor or mentors who can guide you academically and personally to a successful career path. I know from personal experience that they are plentiful at Northeastern, but being mentored is not a passive process: you have to proactively work hard to seek out the right mentors and then to participate actively and dynamically in the mentoring process.”