What Drives a Superhero to Work?

Today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, so we’re thinking about superheroes like Dr. King himself.

Present-day superhero Nathan Wolfe is the director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative and a professor of biology at Stanford University. Big deal, so what?  He travels the globe on the lookout for viruses that could cause the next deadly pandemic. Imagine: he tasks himself with the super-heroic job of identifying and stopping the next (write-in your favorite sci-fi doomsday virus) outbreak. And the very real viral outbreak after that, and the one after that, too.

What drives someone to pursue this line of work? Yes, with the Department of Defense knocking at his door for help, and with partners that include google.org, the National Institutes of Health, and the Skoll Foundation, his paycheck is probably not too shabby. Yet financial reward is likely only secondary compensation for him. We expect that he’s driven primarily by the internal gratification that comes from immersing himself in a subject he finds totally fascinating. And maybe also from helping save the world from large-scale devastation.

What led him initially to this field? As an undergraduate, Wolfe became interested in the way animals use plants as medicine, just like humans do. Indeed his interest may have stemmed from his own self-medicating behavior as a cigarette smoker. Then in graduate school a mentor advised him that while this subject would make an engaging thesis, studying the infectious diseases of animals and becoming an expert in viruses would have a greater impact. Wolfe was sold, and “got completely hooked on viruses.”

For the record, when he considers the fundamental questions “Where do major diseases come from?” and “Why are some viruses so much more deadly than others?” his reply is “We have no answers for many of those questions.” As a preeminent expert, he’s open about what he doesn’t know, which reflects what’s not known, period.

What question(s) drive you to solve the problems you address in your work?

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