With a solid track record of funding biomedical researchers who ultimately go on to win the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, it’s no wonder the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation is often referred to as the most prestigious biomedical research awards grantor in the United States. To date, 87 Lasker laureates have taken home the awards, which have come to be known as “America’s Nobels.”
Mary Lasker worked with a veritable "who’s who" of U.S. political and medical royalty during her time with the foundation. Known as a champion of medical research, she founded the foundation and worked tirelessly both to raise funds and increase public funding for medical research. Her favorite saying was "If you think research is expensive, try disease!"
Each year, the Lasker Foundation, located in New York City, presents three awards to members of the world’s scientific community, recognizing the contributions of researchers and clinician scientists who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of disease.
In addition to the three main awards it bestows to established biomedical researchers, the Lasker Foundation created the Lasker Essay Contest in 2014 to engage young scientists in discussions about the role biomedical research plays in society today. This year, the foundation posed a timely question to the participants: “How can social media help build trust in science and the research enterprise?”
Early biomedical scientists and clinicians representing more than 30 countries dug deep to provide their most creative and forward-thinking answers to that question. According to Andrea Helling, a representative of the foundation, the competition was fierce and students who entered proposed innovative and thought-provoking approaches to promote science using social media.
From an “abundance of excellent essays, the writing of David Hartmann from the Medical University of South Carolina rose to the top,” the foundation stated in its press release.
In other words, Hartmann, an MUSC M.D.-Ph.D. student, stood out among the brightest of the bright.
Hartmann was first shocked and then humbled to learn he’d been selected. Then he was shocked again, he admitted, laughing. He didn’t think he’d be a contender, let alone win.
“I submit an essay every year and have always enjoyed thinking about their interesting prompts. To actually win it was a real surprise. I never can tell if my writing makes sense, so this was the first real feedback I’ve gotten on these essays. It feels really good to have won, but it was a real shock.”
He said the validation of both his ideas and writing style is helpful in that it tells him his writing is clear enough to get his ideas across. He thinks that bodes well for future writing projects.
“This award gives me confidence. Plain English is the only language I know, and it’s my favorite language for sure. I try to keep my writing conversational, but I never know if that’s going to work with the scientific community. It’s nice to know that it worked with the couple of people who actually read the essay," he said with laughter.
Hartmann explained what motivated his intense passion for research.
“Numerous studies show a general distrust of science and that forced me to think about why I trust in science,” he said. “I have two big reasons – my dad and grandpa. Both had potentially lethal cancers — bladder and melanoma, respectively, which about a decade ago were erased by the advances of medical research. That to me was poignant evidence for the merits of research that I think anyone can appreciate.”
Hartmann’s first place-winning essay, “Cancer Survivors: Outstanding Advocates for Trust in Science,” earned him a $10,000 prize and an opportunity to fly to New York City in September to attend the Lasker award luncheon where winners spend time with Lasker laureates.
The essay outlined a social media campaign that encourages patients to share ways in which biomedical research has directly affected and improved the quality of their lives. He believes people are far more likely to accept direction from those with whom they have established a trusted relationship and that non-scientists are in a position to share the benefits of research and even advocate for science.
Ray Dubois, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the College of Medicine, was elated to learn Hartmann took top honors. He was impressed with his winning idea.
“David’s essay was brilliant in proposing a social media campaign in which patients could share how biomedical research improved their health and quality of life in a significant way. This will allow individuals in the public to understand more clearly the value of science and its ultimate benefits for mankind. We are excited to see an MUSC student earn such a prestigious honor this early in his career. His creativity and vision will be great assets as he continues his medical research career.”
Hartmann is beginning his seventh year in the demanding program. He completed his first two of four years of medical school then shifted to four years of research. Now, he’s starting his third of medical school and is excited to return to clinical training.
In June, he defended his doctoral thesis, completing the Ph.D. requirements for his M.D.-Ph.D. His research was focused on the mysterious cell in the brain called a pericyte. He’d never heard of it before he got in the lab, he said, and he worked closely with his mentor, Andy Shih, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience, on the role of the cerebral pericytes in blood flow control.
“It turns out this cell that wraps around blood vessels is all over the place. I was investigating if these pericytes can regulate blood flow to and from the brain. We figured out that the pericytes can control the blood flowing through the brain, and that’s important for a lot of diseases where blood flow is impaired — like Alzheimer’s and stroke.”
Science is his true passion. He imagines in the future that his time will be split about 80 percent science and 20 percent clinical.
“I want to do both, but I love the science. I love it, and I can’t give it up. I enjoy the creativity of it and the writing is actually a factor. Science involves a lot of writing,” he said.
He’s about to start clinical rotations. That will help him narrow down the area in which he wants to concentrate clinically. Right now, neurology is in the lead, but it’s too early to tell if there will be any dark horses in the race, he teased.
Hartmann is a man of many talents. In addition to travel, birding and shooting hoops, he’s in a band, and they hope to release an album. Right now, they have two songs, but they’re working on it. He sings and mostly plays the guitar and bass — and the laptop, he said with a laugh, referring to its ability to program in drums and keyboards.
He was amazed at how similar writing a song is to writing a science article.
“You put an idea out there. In science, it’s my mentor and the other people in the lab. In the band, it’s the other bandmates. They criticize your idea and return their own idea. It’s an exchange of ideas to create a final product. That’s something I didn’t realize until I was working on both at the same time. It’s been fun."
While balancing a grueling academic regimen, extracurricular writing and playing in a band, he also maintains a long distance marriage. His wife Erica is in physician assistant school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They will reunite for good in 2020 when they both graduate. They’ll go somewhere together to do their residencies, but for now they quiz each other and commiserate about how much there is to learn.
Hartmann found himself in good company when he won the Lasker Award. The second and third place winners attend Stanford University and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, respectively. He’s still in disbelief about taking first place.
“The Lasker Foundation is so prestigious. That’s what makes this so shocking. To be associated in any respect is an honor. I am very excited. I keep up with them and love the work they do. It will be a pleasure to visit them this fall.”