Interview by Jack Viscuso ’21
After graduating from Chaminade High School in 2002, Dr. Thomas Magaldi pursued his undergraduate degree in biology at Providence College. He then went on to pursue a PhD in Genetics and Virology at Yale University from 2006-2012. Upon graduation, Dr. Magaldi worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and he also served as the Director of Science Alliance at the New York Academy of Sciences. Currently, he is the assistant dean at the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in New York City. Dr. Magaldi trains and educates students, graduate students, and physicians in order to meet the demands of the science and healthcare workforce.
Q: How has your Chaminade education influenced your experiences to this point? What lessons have guided you throughout your time as a doctor?
A: The most important skill learned at Chaminade was definitely building a strong work ethic. From freshman year on, I was taught that you wouldn’t make it through trimester and comprehensive exams if you didn’t study and put the work in during the school year. Once I got to college, this lesson became even more true. Coming from my high school, I already had a leg-up on all the other students because I knew how to study well and prepare for exams. Most freshman biology majors take general chemistry and biology courses. While these courses aren’t necessarily too difficult, it takes a massive amount of work and effort to succeed on exams and perform well academically during the semester. Thankfully, I already had a strong foundation from my Chaminade education.
Q: What inspired you to enter the medical world and pursue a PhD?
A: My inspiration to enter the medical world came from what I was familiar with at home. My mother worked as a nurse, and my father was a pharmacist, so this field was what I was comfortable with and knew best. Like most other teenagers, I was unsure at that point of what I wanted to be when I was older, so I relied on my instincts. Throughout college too, my interests changed yearly, but I finally settled on pursuing a PhD.
Q: Throughout your various roles in the biomedical industry, what is some of the work you have performed?
A: Back at Yale as a graduate student, I was studying SV40, a tumor virus that doesn’t cause cancer in humans but can teach us a lot about how cancer develops. I also studied HPV which causes cervical cancer and how this infection can change cells. When I began working at the National Institutes of Health, I was hunting for viruses, which is known as pathogen hunting. Basically, my team and I were looking to identify new viruses that could potentially cause harm to humans. The goal with this process was to learn about these viruses and develop treatments before they caused problems in humans. Otherwise, we would be completely unprepared when an outbreak occurs. Currently, we have only characterized 5 to 6,000 viruses. However, some scientists estimate that there are somewhere between a million to a billion viruses that we have not discovered. Take SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing a massive pandemic as this article goes to press. Even though this virus has brought the economy and civilization to its knees, things could be even worse. SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic virus, which is a virus that starts in one animal and then passes to another. This virus probably started in bats (or pangolins) and passed to humans. A similar virus that looked similar to SARS-CoV-2 was discovered in bats in 2013. At the time, Chinese scientists predicted that this virus in bats could eventually cause problems in humans. This discovery, coupled with the SARS outbreak from 2002-2003, taught scientists to screen for similar coronaviruses anytime a patient presented a sickness that was not linked to that known virus. The coronavirus outbreak won’t be the last that humanity experiences. Things will get worse as our climate changes and the world becomes more interconnected. Sometimes the best defense is a strong offense. We should be looking for our virus enemies before they find us.
At Memorial Sloan Kettering now, I am an administrator for the graduate school of biomedical sciences, meaning I no longer conduct research, but I work with the faculty and other administrators to develop curriculums and operate the school.
Q: Automation and artificial intelligence are proving to have a tremendous impact on the labor market and numerous industries in the 21st century. Do you view this advance of technology as a resource for improving healthcare or an adversary for the continued employment of medical professionals?
A: Automation isn’t necessarily going to lead to only one of these outcomes; think of these effects as coupled. Artificial intelligence will undoubtedly enhance medicine, but it will not take away the need for doctors. Some areas of medicine will require less doctors than others. For example, pathologists and radiologists spend most of their time looking at cells under a slide or images of your body. You can train a computer to look at these images and make diagnoses. However, we will need doctors to manage and train these computers. Moreover, interaction between doctors and patients is also incredibly important in medicine. Robots simply cannot replace a personal touch.
Q: You have researched, learned, and worked at a number of impressive institutions ranging from your time at the National Institutes of Health to the New York Academy of Sciences. What has been your most satisfying and rewarding accomplishment?
A: Getting my PhD was incredibly challenging and satisfying. I was the first person in my family to receive a doctorate, so I felt humbled to have achieved this milestone.