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William Smith Leaders

Dr. Priscilla A. Schaffer '64, Sc.D. '94
Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Dr. Schaffer '64

Schaffer is Professor of Medicine and of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where she is Chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Virology. She was previously Chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine where she was the first woman to serve as chair of any department at that institution. Prior to that, she served as Chief of the Laboratory of Tumor Virus Genetics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Director of the Institute’s Women's Cancers Program.

Schaffer is internationally recognized as an expert on the pathogenesis of DNA viruses. Her research has focused primarily on herpes simplex virus, its ability to establish lifelong latent infections and its relation to neurological diseases. The virus is a leading cause of infectious blindness and can be fatal to individuals with weak immune systems, such as newborns, the elderly, and AIDS patients. Schaffer has successfully illuminated the molecular chain of events that enable antiviral drugs to combat herpes virus infections.

At William Smith she graduated cum laude with a double major in biology and chemistry, then went on to earn her Ph.D. with distinction in medical microbiology from Cornell University Medical College. She served on the Board of Trustees from 1986-1994.

How did serving on the Board of Trustees change your view of the Colleges?
As a trustee, I became aware of the multitude of people and activities required to educate, motivate and socialize a diverse group of young men and women at a first-rate undergraduate institution.

Did the coordinate system have an impact on you as a student?
It had a major impact on me. Because a substantial portion of our education took place without the pressure of gender specific differences, I felt free to follow my own instincts and not conform to the gender biased social and professional standards that existed at the time.

How do you define leadership?
The ability to convince individuals to support an idea or concept through example and consensus building.

How did you get where you are today? Can you trace it to a certain moment, experience or personality trait?
I have been blessed with strong innate curiosity and much energy. Coupled with a passion for virology (which I discovered as a sophomore in high school), my profession has been a joyous experience. An insistence on truth in all aspects of life and science has provided a solid base on which to proceed.

Was there a person or a place in your background that nurtured your leadership potential?
My father was my first role model and the high expectations placed on faculty of my current institution have continued to challenge me to improve my leadership potential. My role model at Harvard has been the former Dean for Faculty Affairs, who accomplished Herculean tasks without making so much as a ripple in the water. 

What's the toughest task you've ever had to perform?
Writing the minority report of a congressional committee in which an internationally recognized scientist and professional colleague was accused of scientific misconduct.

 
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