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Posted: 22 Jul 2011
Career Pathways: Nelson Michael

Tell us about your current position

I am the Director of the US Military HIV Research Program (MHRP) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR). I lead an organization of 750 people working on HIV research in seven countries.

What is your background/training in?

I was trained as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in biology with my senior year spent working in a molecular biology lab . I then went to Stanford Medical School and completed a joint MD/PhD program in 7 years with a concentration in molecular biology studying mammalian mitochondrial DNA expression. I completed a three year residency in Internal Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)/Harvard Medical School before coming to WRAIR as a physician-scientist. I worked in the lab for 8 years before assuming a leadership position in the MHRP and then rose to become an Assistant Department Chief, then a Department Chief, and finally the Program Director after 16 years.

What other positions have you held and how have they influenced your career?

I was essentially a post-doc for the first three years of my time at MHRP/WRAIR. This was an exciting time for me as I was productive in the lab as the result of what my own two hands could generate. Over the next few years, I worked as a Staff Scientist with two technicians and then post-docs and became even more productive, but I never forgot what it took to get things done at the bench. I became the Assistant Chief of the Department of Retroviral Research for the next few years and learned to manage a budget with a number of subordinate investigators before leading the Department of Molecular Diagnostics and Pathogenesis for eight years. This taught me how to learn a new but related field while still keeping my basic science work robust. Finally, I became the Director of the MHRP which was a tough transition for the first year given the scope of the job, the enormity of its purview, and the fact that I was now leading those who were my colleagues before. After the first year, the job became a joy. I cannot think of a better job in HIV research at this point.

Who or what had the greatest impact on your career?

My undergraduate advisor taught me the excitement of the then new field of molecular biology and introduced me to infectious disease research (we worked on Leishmania kinetoplast DNA). My graduate advisor taught me how to ask precise scientific questions and to attack them in the lab with intensity. His joy in molecular biology research was inspiring for me. He maintained a high bar for excellence and gave praise sparingly. When my projects became productive, his support drove me to tirelessly work to the next level. I have never lost that drive and hunger for productivity. My clinical teachers at MGH (Chip Schooley, Mort Swartz, Roger Pomerantz) taught me the beauty of internal medicine and infectious disease clinical care delivery and ensured that I would always maintain my clinical skills. I continue to see patients and teach on the internal medicine service today despite a very demanding research career. It grounds you in what really matters in life. My desire to pursue HIV research came from my first AIDS patient as an intern who taught me the highs and lows of AIDS care before HAART. He died just before I left MGH. I think of him very often as we make steady progress against HIV/AIDS.

What advice would you like to share with our readers who may be early in their careers?

Find a supportive mentor and not just a famous one. At the end of your training, that person needs to help get you to the next step. If they will not train you but, rather, leave you to train yourself, you will not realize your potential.


Col. Nelson Michael is the Director of the US Military HIV Research Program (MHRP) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in Silver Spring, MD, USA.

Career Pathways is a series of stories highlighting career trajectories of highly respected individuals working in HIV vaccine research and development that gives a glimpse into the job possibilities, decision-making processes, and situations that got these individuals where they are today.