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A Nobel Prize winner on how to thank medical researchers and health care workers: Wear a mask

I have never been prouder as I watch my scientific colleagues in Boston and around the world do what they can to help all of us.

A research technician at the Ragon Institute in Cambridge, where COVID-19 research is being conducted.Erin Clark/Globe Staff
William Kaelin.Steve Marsel

I have never been prouder to be part of the medical profession than I am now as I watch my clinical colleagues provide care on the front lines of COVID-19, and my scientific colleagues in Boston and around the world see what they can do to help all of us. I’ve never felt more strongly that this is a noble profession.

Two of the scientists in my lab who are MDs volunteered to work on the front lines of COVID-19. That is selfless, inspirational, and heroic. I’ve watched many scientists suddenly pivot their research to do something related to COVID-19. I am also on the board of directors of Eli Lilly and Company. When COVID-19 came along it was all hands on deck to see what they could do about the pandemic. They worked with partners who had isolated antibodies from COVID survivors, to develop artificial versions of the antibodies that are being tested now to try to prevent and treat COVID-19. It was not done to create a cash cow. It was done because it’s the right thing to do.

Cancer didn’t suddenly take a holiday because of COVID-19. The only reason we could reopen the labs at the Dana-Farber, even partially, was that everyone is pitching in, doing the mitigation strategies, sheltering in place, flattening the curve, so that we could take this baby step forward. It has been very painful to see cancer research slowed because of COVID-19 and we have been champing at the bit to get back to work. These things are inspirational to me. All of our essential workers, whether directly involved in health care or providing for our daily needs, are heroes.


With respect to science, we’ve gone from a healthy degree of skepticism of dogma and authority figures to, in at least some quarters, a complete disregard for expertise and credentials. We’re paying for this now when we walk down the street and see people not wearing masks. Can’t we just do this one little thing to protect each other? It seems the least we can do to thank the many people who are literally putting their lives at risk to help us get through this pandemic.


—As told to Linda Matchan


William G. Kaelin Jr., a 2019 Nobel laureate, is the Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Interview has been edited and condensed.