Heroes of the COVID Crisis: How Dr. J. Wes Ulm Stepped Up To Make A Difference During The Pandemic
I’d say self-sacrifice also, a more broadly recognized characteristic of heroism but of particular salience for medical heroes now during the pandemic. This facet of the heroic spirit is being exemplified powerfully before our eyes today, personified by the millions of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers and volunteers the world over who are stepping up, taking extra shifts, and generally just soldiering through the daily horrors and exhaustion of the toll that COVID-19 continues to wreak. I’ll expound on this a bit in the questions below, but that’s no doubt a linchpin of heroism, particularly for health professionals — just tuning out all the fatigue, anguish, and despair and simply powering right through to save lives.
As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. J. Wes Ulm.
J. Wes Ulm, MD, PhD, is a physician-researcher, musician, and novelist originally hailing from Alexandria, Virginia, winning a National Merit Scholarship and graduating valedictorian of his class at T. C. Williams High School before earning a B.S. degree, summa cum laude, in chemistry and biochemistry at Duke University. At 22, on the cusp of starting medical school, he achieved five consecutive nights on the Jeopardy! TV quiz program and made the show’s Tournament of Champions. He went on to earn a dual MD/PhD degree from Harvard Medical School and MIT, supported by an NIH Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) fellowship, publishing diversely in genetics, molecular biology, and pharmacology with a thesis focusing on the tissue targeting of retroviral gene therapy vectors. He has since published news articles and a novel (Echoes of the Mystic Chords), started a popular alt-rock and 90s revival band (J. Wes Ulm and Kant’s Konundrum) with an award-winning music video (“A Hustler’s Tale”) and, most importantly for this interview, branched out into bioinformatics and therapeutic drug development, publishing recently on a rapidly flexible drug-repurposing system for the COVID-19 pandemic: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/tbed.13710 Dr. Wes, as he’s known to fans and followers of his band and other creative pursuits, is here as part of the Heroes of the COVID Crisis series in relation to his ongoing efforts in the drug discovery and public health arena.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?
I grew up in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area, in a region rife with research and clinical facilities that helped to shape my career ambitions to bring novel and groundbreaking treatments to the world. I was one of those kids deemed a child prodigy for whatever that’s worth — publishing poetry and short stories by age 10 and conducting research at the Naval Research Lab at 11 — which likewise opened a lot of doors and lent me the confidence to aim high in my budding medical career. Contacts and networking were a more hit-or-miss affair back in those pre-Internet days, but my early forays garnered enough attention to help plug me in to advanced training and investigational opportunities. So it’s fair to say I’ve been knee-deep in the healing arts since I was a lanky, gawky elementary school kid stumbling around to find my homeroom the first day of sixth grade. My family was thoroughly supportive and this was a crucial bedrock. My parents divorced during early childhood and there were some bouts of financial struggle, but they consistently placed a high priority on education and concrete accomplishment for my brother and me through all the ups-and-downs, helping me to realize that early promise and develop into the physician-scientist which I’d aspired to become from early youth.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There were two that were especially formative in my youth. The first was Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc, essentially a work of historical fiction about the French soldier, political leader, and saint that got me reading other works about her. The book was a kind of afterthought as a class assignment from all the way back in grade school, after we’d finished reading Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but it resonated powerfully for me, in large part due to themes of true heroism emphasized throughout this interview. Joan intrigued me as a kid because of how she stood astride of history, as what we’d call an outlier today, and refused to bow to conventions or exhortations about her supposed limitations. By the age of 12 she was already filled with resolve and an iron will to unite her country as a sovereign polity, having even then achieved remarkable things, at a time when virtually anyone outside the aristocracy struggled to make an impact or achieve the most basic historical agency. As a young peasant teenager she showed remarkable political savvy, and with no battlefield experience she mastered the nuances of medieval artillery — among the first military commanders to do so — while rallying the morale of her exhausted troops, breaking the Siege of Orleans and changing the course of history.
Twain’s literary brilliance really evoked these character traits, and ever since then, Joan has been in my personal pantheon of historical idols along with such figures as the Basque Spanish admiral Blas de Lezo and the German medical hero Rudolf Virchow, because of the way she embodied force of will as a shaper of events instead of a mere subject of them. That’s one of the hallmarks of true heroism that I’ll get into a bit more below. Another formative book for me, a bit more obscure but no less significant, is a nonfiction work called Passionate Minds (edited by Lewis Wolpert and Alison Richards), essentially an assemblage of interviews with major physicists and other modern scientific leaders like Roald Hoffman, Murray Gell-Mann, and Jared Diamond. I adored that book since it was one of the few that provided an actual window into the minds of great thinkers and doers, providing something like a lighthouse to help me guide and structure my thinking in a more productive way. In fact, along with a masterful book on the history of computing and programming logic by Martin Davis (The Universal Computer: the Road from Leibniz to Turing), it’s one of the rare books that’s actually shaped how I perceive the world and solve practical problems within it.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One of my favorite such quotes is by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, since it contains so many valuable lessons in a single pithy aphorism. In its original form: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” It sounds contradictory in a cheeky kind of way, but that’s the beauty of it. So much of navigating this complex and confusing world consists of managing and abiding contradictions, and Shaw’s quote here speaks to that. Rationality is one of the great faculties in the human mind and for over 90 percent of everything we do, we want to be as rational as possible, and play the odds. But there’s a critical 5–10 percent of cases or so when we want to break out of that mold and do something unusual and disruptive. These are the cases when we take on a task that’s “impossible” or supposed to be — and make it work anyway, with extraordinary results. Like so many other things, it’s a matter of balance, juxtaposing caution with dynamism and seizing key opportunities. Two examples from my own background are my stint as a Jeopardy! champion and a professional popular musician and songwriter in the alternative rock/art rock genre. At first these might seem to be a planet and solar system away from the mainstay of what I do, but in embracing these pursuits, I wound up building a kind of “left brain-right brain synergy” that helped me think more creatively and rigorously. Many of my subsequent achievements, in the battle against COVID-19 and in bioinformatically-driven drug discovery in general, were tangibly nourished by this synergy.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
By way of background and professional temperament, I’m a physician-scientist, which more-or-less means that my head was hurting every day in med school from the volume of material I had to absorb. But it also provided me with a thorough grounding in an esoteric but fascinating field known as translational medicine — essentially, mapping out concrete routes to rapidly convert intriguing bench research into bedside applications. Thanks to this training, and the extraordinary minds with whom I was able to bounce off ideas and research projects, I forged the nucleus of the technology I’d later apply to COVID-19 drug discovery in 2020. I learned to conceptualize many biological and physical phenomena in general in the language of logic and information exchange — to conceive cells and tissues as little Turing machines, to use some of the lingo from the bioinformatics field. And this helped me to establish the collaborations and teamwork needed to develop novel systems for drug repurposing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus at the heart of the pandemic, building in part on work I’d previously done in drug repositioning for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
That’s the essence of my principal efforts in regard to tackling the COVID crisis — taking a systematic bioinformatics approach to supercharge the first key steps in the otherwise gradual process of drug discovery, by quickly repurposing other therapeutic agents from various steps in the development pipeline. As indicated in my biosketch above, I was motivated in part by my own respiratory ordeal following L.A.’s pertussis epidemic, and then my own weakened lungs then had to battle bouts of COVID and pneumonia in 2020. It was nightmarish, and it’s made me all the more driven to apply my skills and gifts to spare others from this horrible pandemic.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?
Flesh-and-blood heroes may lack the nifty superpowers or invulnerability (if only, at a time like this) of their counterparts in the comics or big screen, but in my humble opinion, the real-life versions are vastly more interesting and thought-provoking because of what true heroism represents. It’s generally not flashy, it doesn’t involve grand acts of martyrdom or going out in a blaze of glory, and for the most part, true acts of heroism don’t dovetail all that well with a rousing film score or soundtrack. Rather, real heroism to me is closely bound up with concepts of perseverance, nuance, balance, and above all, the courage to be disruptive and challenge conventional wisdom when the evidence demands it, and thus to shape events in a constructive direction rather than be shaped by them. Heroism is demonstrated especially by those who set aside their own comfort, including expedient but misleading assumptions or groupthink, to make a critical contribution to a community, based on truths and findings that are often inconvenient or outright rejected at the outset. It’s also epitomized by visionaries who envisage a better future that they seek to shape — with balance, nuance, and empathy, no doubt, but also with fierce determination. I’ll offer up some salient examples for the question below.
In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.
1. I’d say one such heroic characteristic is a dogged dedication to the truth in the face of naysaying and “the tyranny of the established,” persisting to the point even of risking one’s own well-being if the societal need demands it. An astonishing true-to-life case in point is Barry Marshall, the courageous Australian doctor who proved that most peptic ulcer disease is caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. He faced strident resistance and even ridicule from the community, with heavy pressure to fall in with conventional wisdom. Yet he pressed on, going so far as to consume a flask of the pathogenic bacterium to prove the cause-and-effect of his hypothesis, and continued to persist in the face of ongoing pushback until his work was validated. I often refer to this trait as a brand of “stoical empiricism”: a hard-nosed, often stubborn perseverance borne of an elemental dedication to the truth and evidence, even when they’re widely spurned at the outset. It requires questioning standard assumptions and refusing to take things for granted, which entails a kind of intellectual bravery — stepping far outside one’s comfort zones — that’s difficult to muster and sustain. In this vein, I’d also mention the pioneering Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis, who singled out the importance of sterile practice and aseptic technique in managing childbirth, even in the face of ardent opposition at the time to such an emphasis. His work has saved millions of lives.
2. Another trait of heroic individuals, related to the first point and the quote from George Bernard Shaw above, is the impetus to shape events and guide the currents of history, instead of simply being carried by them. This, too, requires significant courage and determination. Two notable examples here from the world of medicine are Gerhard Domagk and Rudolf Virchow, among the few individuals who can rightly be attributed with saving billions of lives thanks to their work. Domagk was a German physician who (with Paul Ehrlich) introduced modern antibiotics to the world, in the form of the first sulfa drugs. Like Marshall later in Australia, Domagk encountered resistance while doing much of his research under harrowing circumstances (after having been wounded in the First World War). Infectious disease had plagued humanity for eons, and at the time, it was beyond the scope or imagination of most established wisdom that society could acquire a tool to loosen that yoke. But Domagk was a fierce empiricist and iron-willed in his determination to prove such fatalism wrong, and he steadily chipped away to illuminate the underlying bacteriological and physiological principles that would make his earliest sulfa formulations clinically effective. In a similar spirit, Domagk’s compatriot Rudolf Virchow was one of the “prime movers” of medical history who essentially defined the foundations of clinical pathology, and thus the scientific basis for much of medical practice. He was an incredibly driven and industrious individual who had an uncanny ability to guide the course of events through sheer willpower, and it’s to him that the world also owes much of what we take for granted as modern sanitation, just as important as antibiotics and antiseptic surgery in engendering first-world public health standards across the globe.
3. I’d say self-sacrifice also, a more broadly recognized characteristic of heroism but of particular salience for medical heroes now during the pandemic. This facet of the heroic spirit is being exemplified powerfully before our eyes today, personified by the millions of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers and volunteers the world over who are stepping up, taking extra shifts, and generally just soldiering through the daily horrors and exhaustion of the toll that COVID-19 continues to wreak. I’ll expound on this a bit in the questions below, but that’s no doubt a linchpin of heroism, particularly for health professionals — just tuning out all the fatigue, anguish, and despair and simply powering right through to save lives.
4. A fourth core bedrock of heroism, I’d argue, is empathy. So much of heroism in practice involves connecting on an elemental level with those in need of help. It’s not necessarily the grand sweeps and gestures that make for heroism, but the little things. To me, this quality is best embodied by three historically pioneering nurses: Dorothea Dix, Mary Seacole, and Anne Biget. Dix was a great unsung hero of the history of medicine, likely the individual most responsible for creating a humane system for the treatment of patients with psychiatric illness. She faced bitter opposition and scorn from the establishment, but she persevered largely because of her deep empathy for people whom she grasped were being poorly treated or abused, and had little recourse. Seacole, for her part, was so empathetic to the plight of her patients that she often utilized her own financial resources to provide desperately needed assistance, most notably amid the dreadful cholera epidemic that overwhelmed Jamaica in the mid-1800s. A similar, lesser-known but no less significant example is Anne Biget (Sister Martha), a French nurse who dedicated herself to assisting prisoners of war and civilian inmates in the early 1800s, similar to what Dix would later do for those with psychiatric disease. Their empathy impelled them to do extraordinary things, and to transform the nursing profession into what it is today, with a key emphasis on not only treating and caring for patients, but also advocating for those least capable of defending or supporting themselves.
5. And a fifth cornerstone of real-world heroism is balance, in the sense of prudence and nuance. As detailed above, I feel that a key characteristic of heroic individuals and behavior is the willingness to be disruptive when exigencies demand it, but this must go hand-in-hand with caution and good judgment. A ready-made example nowadays is our posture toward our natural environment and ecosystem, the stability and health of which constitute an essential underpinning for our own capacity to thrive as a civilization. True-to-life heroes have a profound appreciation of this, and work to support not only human society, but also the web of flora and fauna that share the world with us. Two individuals of note in this regard are Rachel Carson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Carson was the author of Silent Spring, and she took a heroic stand by questioning the usual externalization of the costs of industrialization and pollution, and showing how society itself depended on a more sensible balance with our supporting environment. Teilhard de Chardin was a French priest and philosopher whose work encompassed numerous facets, but above all, he helped pioneer the concept of a working noosphere — in essence, a plugged-in, constructive network of interactive minds. It was first suggested by the Russian-Ukrainian mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky, building on the Austrian geologist Eduard Suess’s notion of the biosphere, but Teilhard de Chardin was especially instrumental in building further on the idea and including, as a core component, a prudent approach to resource utilization and harmony with the natural world and environmental infrastructure.
If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?
I’d say the answer here is actually fairly straightforward: When ordinary people become heroes, it’s because they rise to the occasion, and don’t overthink it. They simply do what needs to be done, steeling themselves against pain and adversity, and press right through. Again in line with the points above, they’re guided by external needs and the demands of truth and tangible progress, and by hitching themselves to these broader aims, they gain a resilience and resolve that may be otherwise elusive. Such individuals usually don’t even grasp their own heroism because they’re so immersed in what they’re doing, and our capacity to do this, to dial in and tune out all the errant thoughts and stimuli that might divert our efforts, is one of the more remarkable faculties of the human mind. There were times when I was dubbed a hero in my own medical duties by patients and colleagues, whether on ordinary shifts or strenuous stretches amid an emergency or local disaster, and I recall my initial reaction being largely one of surprise. I was so absorbed in the mission, in the immediate demands of what the crisis required, that even the prospect of heroism was something that occurred to me only in retrospect.
What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?
For me, it was above all a recognition that I had a comprehensive and uniquely valuable skill set, acquired over many years as a physician-scientist, allowing me to contribute in a special way to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m fortunate to have acquired an extraordinary assemblage of capabilities that are potent tools for therapeutic design and study, thanks to my background as a clinician and researcher in molecular biology and genetics, in conjunction with programming and analytical skills in bioinformatics. As my girlfriend recently quipped to me, when I was preparing to publish my recent scientific paper on COVID-19 drug repurposing, I was a dedicated and multifaceted egghead, and had enough immersion in these diverse fields of endeavor to integrate them synergistically. This was an especially powerful catalyst for action, even more so since it was also fueled by my personal travails with infectious respiratory disease. I simply felt obligated to step up.
Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?
One of my personal heroes is William Haseltine, a scientist and professor at Harvard Medical School whose work I learned of when I was studying there, and who’s been instrumental in helping to combat COVID-19 and HIV before it. He exemplifies the heroic personal characteristics I laid out above in spades, with a driving persistence to embrace the truth coupled with deep empathy and prudence. Another is Paul Farmer, the courageous physician so moved to make a difference in a distinctive way, that he worked for years in Haiti to help buttress the country’s public health system and bring quality healthcare to badly underserved populations. I first learned of him in passing since he followed a similar academic track as I did, with an undergraduate degree at Duke University followed by an MD/PhD joint degree at Harvard Med; but then he came to speak in Boston, and all of us in the audience were simply awestruck at the heroism he embodied from head to toe. He’s the real-deal version of the heroes in the Avengers movies. A third hero is perhaps a much lesser-known name, but no less important — Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov. He was a Soviet rocket forces officer in the early 1980s who, quite literally, spared the world from a likely nuclear war and deaths of tens of millions of people, when he averted a nuclear missile launch due to what turned out to be a misperception of an enemy attack by faulty detection systems. He exemplified discretion and discipline, and a profound embrace of civilization even at risk to his own career, genuinely saving the world in the process. That’s genuine, 200-proof heroism, and that for a hero who’s been particularly unsung given that many of us likely wouldn’t be here today without his heroic act.
Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?
What frightens me most is that SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, is a wily and nimble foe, and too often the media and even many experts either forget this or imprudently downplay it in the desperation for a light at the end of this dark tunnel. There’s been a coveted but tragically misleading meme that “everything will be back to normal by the summer” with broader vaccine administration and other public health measures. But this simply isn’t realistic, and the wishful thinking associated with it has already been engendering cases of careless behavior and complacency at a crucial juncture, with harmful results like reduced mask compliance and inadequate contact tracing in some vaccinated communities. The vaccines are no doubt a critical piece of the puzzle, and their rapid development is a source of hope.
However as noted by Peter Doshi, an editor of the British Medical Journal, it’s difficult to gauge the vaccines’ true efficacy in the field particularly for vulnerable populations, and with waning immunity (also observed for natural infection), there’s likely going to be a need for booster regimes that will be a significant challenge. Given the compressed timeframe, this multi-dosing starts to raise mounting concerns particularly for the lipid nanoparticle-borne mRNA vaccines, whose tissue localization (unlike more established immunization technologies) and long-term safety profile are unknown. And since the novel coronavirus has reached a critical mass — 100 million human cases worldwide as of late January 2021, plus animal reservoirs — natural selection is breeding vaccine-resistant mutants at an alarming clip. We’re already seeing this with the South African and Brazilian strains which have attained community spread in the United States as of January, and leading to deadly resurgences even in highly immunized countries like Israel and the UK, particularly where heedlessness and inattention have set in. The pandemic clearly isn’t going anywhere, and we can’t afford to let our guard down.
Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?
Stated simply, what gives me the most hope is that humans, whatever our flaws and shortcomings, are problem-solvers at our very core. We’re endless tinkerers and disruptors by nature, and even in the midst of despair and loss, we just find a way to overcome each new set of obstacles. So it will be with the COVID-19 pandemic. We may never be entirely free of this deadly pathogen, since it’s shown itself to be versatile and quite capable of adapting, and spreading among numerous hosts. But we’ll continue to develop our own countermeasures, and we’ll manage and continue to grow our civilization. This is one of the reasons why, over the long term, I’m a determined optimist, no matter what the setbacks over the short and medium term. To the extent this question is tapping into more profound existential questions, on a broader philosophical plane, I guess I’m impressed at how our universe and our natural world on some level are more-or-less hard-wired to evolve and catalyze the emergence of ever greater complexity and consciousness. And I feel like we as an intelligent, sentient species embody and reflect that in our very beings — we’re a way the universe sees and builds upon itself, in a manner that compresses eons of otherwise slowly-evolving history into a relative eyeblink. So even with the drawbacks and frequent self-destructiveness of human nature, overall we tend to fix and improve things, even at the worst times, and to almost instinctually find ways to cooperate and collaborate.
To illustrate this a bit further, I used to raise eyebrows in cocktail conversations in Los Angeles when the members of a group would field the inevitable questions about whether we’re glass-half-full or half-empty types. I always described myself as a very cautious optimist especially over the medium term, but overall forward-looking and positive nonetheless. When asked why, I’d cite the notorious L.A. traffic as an example of how we find ways to fix things, help out, and cooperate even when we’re at wit’s end and feel like we’re about to hop out of our cars and rumble in the freeway. Despite all this, even amid all that stress and misery, in 95% of cases people simply team up and collaborate to help each other change lanes, avoid accidents, and get to where they need to go, almost as if by instinct. It’s a good tonic and countering message to all the bad news and glumness that seem to bubble up disproportionately nowadays.
What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?
I’m most inspired by the little acts of caring and heroism that people show for each other. Even with all the negativity and boorish behavior that so often seem to dominate the airwaves and Internet, I’ve found that for the most part during the pandemic, neighbors and even strangers have been willing to assist with their resources as best they can in a time of scarcity and difficulty. We help each other with groceries and rides to the hospital, provide emotional lifts, give a bit extra in tip for the long-suffering restaurants and waiters — just a range of little things to boost morale and help one another through the crisis.
As far as behaviors I’ve found the most disappointing, in general these tend to stem from this unsettling propensity in America to politicize the pandemic — as with so many other things of late, given the polarization in the country. Mask-wearing really isn’t controversial or a significant burden, it’s safe and effective, and it helps business as well as saving lives. So it’s been disheartening to see such pitched arguments erupting about it, even violent crimes, alongside the politicization of so many other core facets of public health. And also as alluded to above, it’s been worrisome to see how quickly complacency and bad public health habits have overtaken some quarters where vaccines have been doled out, even though it’s clear these immunizations have significant limitations in their capacity to curb pandemic spread and severity, especially as the mutant strains take root. There were several instances a couple weeks ago when areas with otherwise high mask usage and rigorous social distancing saw a drop-off in these bread-and-butter infectious control measures after a vaccine drive, which may have contributed to a paradoxical spike in transmission.
Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.
It has, in complex ways. Perhaps most importantly, I feel like the COVID-19 struggles have reinforced the pivotal importance of having a solid public health apparatus and supportive infrastructure from the get-go, and the breakdown on this front early in the pandemic has made me reassess US institutions and the need to buttress them for future crisis preparation. It’s easily forgotten now, so deep into the pandemic, but one of the reasons the United States has been so hard-hit was the testing fiasco during those precious first few months of 2020. Chinese scientists had released the full, accurate sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 RNA genome in late January, at which point it was straightforward to develop testing modules for it using a well-established technique called RT-PCR. South Korea, Germany, and China all released good working tests off-the-bat, some of which were adopted by the World Health Organization. But for reasons still inexplicable, the US spurned the working WHO tests, opting to develop our own. Yet technical errors and delays crept in, costing the country crucial weeks of preparation even as many in the media and public health officials insisted the US wasn’t as vulnerable as Italy or China. That was dreadful wishful thinking, and it left the US wholly unprepared for the storm to come. This breakdown took place in the context of a broader collapse in trust and integrity of American institutions, and I do feel that that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed some of the institutional rot, and the urgency to reform it.
What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?
In line with the question above, I’d urgently like to see the US shore up its public health institutions as many countries especially in Asia (such as South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan) have done to improve pandemic preparedness, and unite them with concerted efforts to protect our ecosystems. COVID-19 is likely the first salvo of many pandemics to soon come owing to the sheer weight of mounting epidemiological risk factors including fast-rising global population, loss of natural habitat, climate change, deforestation, and the sheer mobility and density of global societies. We truly need a Manhattan Project-level commitment to bring about integrated public health, industrial, and environmental policies to tackle the root causes of the pandemic waves to come. Along similar lines, as regards lasting societal changes I’d like to see, I feel like communities as a whole must look more seriously at balancing globalism with “localism,” as many have dubbed it — sourcing and trading more with self-contained regional units, less dependent on longer supply lines and global movements. I don’t take a rigid “either-or” view of globalization; its balance sheet overall is a riddle to tease out, and it’s fair to say it has a broad mix of positive and negative effects for communities. But I think that the COVID-19 crisis is in many ways the most alarming canary in the coal mine, warning us of the re-balancing we urgently need to improve sourcing and self-sufficiency of local and regional communal entities.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I’d emphasize to other young people not to give into despair and defeatism, no matter how alarming and discouraging current events may seem. The arc of history has invariably entailed struggle and uncertainty from one era to another, and America’s youth today must take the mantle of a new civilizational philosophy, stepping away from the confines of simplistic ideology or economic systems to achieve the global balance we’ll need to protect our ecosystems while advancing technologically and intellectually. As I said above, COVID-19 is something like nature’s early shot-across-the-bow, that current global population and economic systems are straining the ecological support networks that sustain us; that’s in fact how zoonoses (animal-to-human transmitted diseases), like the novel coronavirus, generally emerge to begin with. And it’s going to be the first of many pandemics and ecological crises to come in the next two decades.
American and global youth should therefore feel bold enough to take charge of the pivotal changes to come, without hesitation or misguided entreaties to “pay their dues.” The Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg is an obvious example of such action-oriented approaches, but the most significant and practical reforms will be coming from the small armies of young people, organizing on the ground and through social media, who simply experiment and achieve a vast web of tiny improvements that add up as they tackle local and global challenges. I’ve often said that kids on the whole actually do quite a few things better than grown-ups do; we learn in medical school that they’re better at languages, various skills acquisition, music mastery, many sports and mental games like chess and Go, and quite a few other things. But more broadly, I feel like youth are frequently more capable of clearly glimpsing solutions and then simply charting a path to action, without being hindered by all the rigid assumptions and ideological blinders that too often set in for adults. And the coming era of great reforms must be youth-led.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
In fits and starts, while in medical school I began a global health drive called the E.M.P.O.W.E.R Initiative (Education and Microcredit for Poor Women in Endemic Regions). I founded this as an effort to apply specialized AI tools and “wisdom-of-the-crowd”-guided resource allocation to bring empowering social benefits especially to women and girls in regions hard-hit by AIDS and malaria. If I had my philanthropic druthers, it’s absolutely something I’d like to support more intensively, both financially and in terms of time and expertise. One of the major hindrances to development across most of the industrializing world is the lack of opportunity and options for girls and women, which has a knock-on effect in exacerbating other social, political, and environmental crises. I feel this is something that has to be better addressed as a top priority to facilitate other positive societal developments.
More broadly, I feel like a central shortfall in many market-based societies is the maldistribution of seed capital for innovative entrepreneurial and nonprofit ideas for community improvement, public health, and the environment. Even here in the US, we’ve lost a lot of the social mobility we once had and now trail most other developed countries, in part because capital has become so concentrated which, by the very nature of a capitalist society, throttles innovation and creative entrepreneurship. I’d like to focus particularly on the capital and microcredit side of initiatives along the lines of E.M.P.O.W.E.R., and help pool seed capital for the strivers and hustlers of society who historically have been among the main drivers of progress, but hindered by their very lack of capital to begin with. In the US and Canada specifically, I’ve likewise nurtured a particular interest in providing such options for native American and First Nations communities, who’ve been especially burdened by poverty and lack of capital access, and whose unique cultures and heritage are integral to the broader identity and richness of North America.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Greg Graffin, the lead vocalist and songwriter from one of my fave 90s bands Bad Religion — and also a PhD zoologist and professor! As a singer-songwriter myself alongside my biomedical background, I’ve long been intrigued by the intellectual nimbleness and sheer badassery of scientists, physicians, and engineers who maintain first-rate creative careers while managing the technical demands of their STEM professions. Greg Graffin holds a special place in my pantheon of such individuals, though I harbored an early fascination for such left brain-right brain virtuosos. Ever since I began strumming a humble Art Lutherie guitar back in primary school, I set out to emulate examples like Brian May of Queen (an accomplished astrophysicist), Tom Scholz of Boston (a top engineer), and Brian Cox of D:Ream (professor of particle physics). From there I read in awe about historical greats in the sciences or medicine who were also esteemed and popular musicians: the Russian chemist and physician Alexander Borodin, a world-class concert pianist and composer (Prince Igor) even as he was laying the groundwork for much of modern organic chemistry; the Austrian surgeon Theodor Billroth, who played in symphonies and contributed to music theory in between founding modern general surgery; and the redoubtable Richard Feynman, who enthralled audiences on the bongo drums while teasing out the nuances of quantum electrodynamics.
For me, Greg Graffin (along with Dexter Holland from Offspring, a molecular biologist) then embodied this archetype in a special way because he fused his technical genius with outright mastery of the musical innovations of the late 80s and early 90s. I’ve adopted these sonic landscapes as the touchstone for my own songwriting and musical creation with my band — forging a genre we’ve dubbed Hypno-Intox — and found them to be a powerful tonic for not only creative production, but also for my technical efforts, as if feeding right back into my “left-brain undertakings.” As I hinted at above, there’s an enigmatic and utterly fascinating synergy between the act of creative endeavor, especially in music, and more technical strivings, e.g. in the way I’ve found my clinical consulting or computer programming efforts to be catalyzed by a spell of guitar chord-hopping or seminal melody creation. Graffin seemed to have a preternatural knack for synergizing these two worlds, and I’d be stoked beyond words to touch base and exchange ideas with him.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m @jwesulm on all social media (Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Tumblr, VKontakte, MySpace, Ameba); YouTube/Spotify channels and homepage (under construction) are currently geared mainly toward the band and music samples plus Jeopardy! snippets, but expanding into my medical, scientific, and programming work as it gains a more public profile. My non-technical writing and articles are a bit scattered on topics from public and health policy to linguistics and economics, but you can find some of my ongoing work in policy periodicals (Democracy Journal, Utne Reader, International Policy Digest) as well as on Quora and Medium through an author search, and same for my novel and trilogy-in-progress. If looking to discuss medsci topics or just powwow and bounce off ideas, feel free to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org (run by my wonderful team and publicists), or search for my ORCID professional articles page (also in progress) which links up with my business email.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!