Miriam: The Dancing Scientist


Date Published: June 16, 2021

Miriam Merad, MD, PhD, is an evangelist for the immune system. “What's my mission in life? To reveal the power of the immune system in treating most human diseases,” she says on Real, Smart People. An internationally acclaimed physician-scientist, Dr. Merad is also passionate about inspiring new generations of scientists. “For people to follow you, you have to show them that this is exciting,” she says. In this audio portrait, Dr. Merad talks about the promise of immunotherapy and the importance of paying it forward.

Miriam Merad, MD, PhD, is Director of the Precision Immunology Institute at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Director of the Mount Sinai Human Immune Monitoring Center.

Podcast Transcript

Dr. Miriam Merad: 00:00

I love to dance because, well, first I come from this Mediterranean environment where everyone dances. My childhood was very fun. There was always music and dancing. And I love doing this. I love having people over. And then we'll have food and then I will put the music on and then I'll turn the music louder, and my husband will ask me to like—and I will fight so that the music is louder. And at the end everyone's on the dance floor. I love talking, also. I talk about politics a lot. I talk about science a lot. And I always talk about, "You know, you should really learn about the immune system."

My name is Miriam Merad and I am the Director of the Precision Immunology Institute at Mount Sinai.

The immune system is our best doctor. We have a fantastic immune system that knows how to protect us from flu and from severe bacterial infections. We are telling this immune system, use all your power and your ability to recognize damage and stress, and go kill the cancer cells. Well, the immune system, if you educate him well, he can do it. This is my mission. So if you say, what's my mission in life? It's to really reveal the power of the immune system in treating most human diseases.

I constantly talk about my enthusiasm because I think it's really key. For people to follow you, you have to show that this is exciting. And even when things are not going so well, it is a privilege to do what we do. It's a privilege because we are in the middle of this human body and this is what we do, we navigate through this extraordinary immune system, and by figuring it out, we may find novel treatments for very, very serious diseases. It's like, how much more fun could that be? I mean, it's a privilege.

When I think about the story of my lab, it's really like a big movie. We celebrated a big paper—we had a paper in Nature a few days ago—a big celebration at my house, and I invited my lab over. And I told the story of the beginning of that paper, which was in fact 11 years ago. And it was so fun to describe when we started to think about this question and how it evolved and how it ended up with this beautiful paper in Nature. But along the way, we had people and marriages and kids and other papers. And so somehow it's a story of people also, science.

It is a very unique environment. It's also a kind environment because we know first that suffering is one of the reasons why we all gather together. This is what drives us, suffering somewhere. Some of us have seen it very closely. I was very attached to my patients. Some of them just decided to fight without being exposed. I'm talking about the PhDs, for example, the mathematicians, the physicists that are part of the team. But what unites us is this higher purpose of really alleviating suffering. It's a great group of people. I love them. It's true.

I'd like my legacy to be that I have inspired people to do what they are doing and enjoy doing. Much more potentially than my impact in science. I would love of course to contribute, absolutely, and find a new treatment. Absolutely, and that's my mission. But it is as important to me to have impacted people's lives, because somehow it multiplies. And one thing I say to all the people I train when they thank me is, "Do it to someone else." Many people need that little inspiration. They've been through something difficult. They need a little extra. And, you know, at my age now I know you do it and you feel, I hope I've done it enough.

If I had a billboard in Times Square I would write—as a leader I would write, "generosity." As a scientist I would write, "Don't be incremental. Be transformative."