d shaywitzDavid Shaywitz is a man of many talents.  He serves as Chief Medical Officer for DNAnexus; writes for Forbes and other publications; is a visiting scientist at Harvard Medical School in the area of biomedical informatics and is also involved in the Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH), and, of course, he hosts the Tech Tonics podcast with me, Lisa Suennen.  I’m so delighted to help feature David as the Man of the Month and to offer this interview, which shows the many different sides of this brilliant and loving man.

How do you define yourself?

I don’t really define myself through any one role.  Rather, I see myself as combining two very different impulses.  On the one hand I’m an integrative thinker seeking to get the 30,000 foot view of the world and identify the key trends; essentially I see this as pulling the “so what” out of different experiences.  On the other hand, I really don’t live entirely in the world of the mind.  I love the operational execution and implementation of ideas and especially the incredibly exciting and messy process of going from initial idea to real world impact.

What among your many professional accomplishments are you most proud of?  What are you excited to accomplish?

I’m really most excited by what I’m doing right now. I got an incredible opportunity to be literally at the nexus of rapidly evolving technology and medicine and data and patients.  I can’t believe I get to do what I do each day and to do it with the people I get to work with.  In a way I see the startup world as “vision dating” – you have your vision and meet up with colleagues and market leaders and hear their visions and find out where they connect and intersect.  It’s so rewarding.

Did you always want to be a doctor?  When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up and how does that relate to what you actually ended up doing?

I probably always did want to be a doctor.  I grew up in a house where both parents were physician scientists, loved what they did and were entirely engaged in it.  There wasn’t pressure to be like them, but I saw an incredibly inspiring example of people who loved their profession and made a difference, so I think my path flowed naturally from there.  I never wanted to be a fireman.  I did go through a brief kid athlete phase wanting to be baseball player, but fundamentally I was always a nerdy kid and pretty much the exact stereotype that brings to mind.

If weren’t a doctor I would love to be a librettist on Broadway.  Unfortunately I have absolutely no talent for it, but wouldn’t it be great to do something in the theater or movies?  It always has appealed to me because of the elemental nature of film and theater and the immediacy it offers to tease out core emotions and tensions.  I was always drawn to it. I guess this is my of trite answer that sounds like “I’d write a screenplay.”  Unfortunately I don’t have one written.

What do you hope to achieve in your professional career?  How will you know when you have been successful, according to your own definition?

I really do define success by the journey, regardless of how pollyanna-ish that sounds.  Success to me is working on exciting stuff with amazing people.  I don’t have a single north star where I’m trying to go. I feel like I know success when I’m in the flow and have a chance to be transformative and impactful in a team that really works together well.

Your background is largely medicine and pharmaceuticals yet you have a keen interest in digital health.  How did that come about?  What’s the opportunity here and what’s not so promising in this area?

It may be less of a leap than it seems.  As I said, I was always kind of a nerd.  My favorite experience growing up was math camp at Duke.  I was captain of the high school math team and I was nerdy with pride.  If you want I can tell you the first 100 digits of pi – it’s my party trick.  It’s probably why you and I weren’t at the same parties.

I did my medical training in the health sciences and technology division of Harvard – an ultra-nerdy group where MIT/Harvard come together to combine a medical and technology focus – so I had the raw material for the digital health world.  I made a deliberate effort to move from Boston to Silicon Valley to join a biotech company and was thrilled to immerse myself in tech and figure out how to be at the center of tech community.

It is cool out here because you don’t get beat up for going to math camp.  Everyone else went too.

As I’ve been here in California, I like to think about the way I see tech being applied to healthcare. There is a humanistic aspect of medicine that I recognize as a physician that isn’t just a reductive technology thing.  Applying tech to medicine can result in loss of the human element.  This tension has characterized much of what I write about.

What do technologies like that of DNAnexus and others focused on the personalized medicine opportunity mean for patients and physicians?  What is the promise? What worries you?

The promise is to integrate vast amounts of data and generate insights that improve the actual care of actual people.

Here’s what worries me:  I am worried people will hoard data and we will never get to the promised land; that we will leave lots of knowledge and value on the table. There is so much opportunity to apply what we know about one patient to others if get are good at sharing data.  Secondly, it is incredibly important that people working in this area maintain humility and not overpromise; if we overpromise about the power and speed of the process, others will get too skeptical and we will lose our opportunity.  We must acknowledge we are really at the beginning here and medicine is hard and people are complex and we must have a fundamental appreciation for the complexity.  It would be naïve to say we can have the computer chug away and spit out life changing insights – it’s much more complicated than that.

What is the most exciting thing you are seeing in the world of healthcare and entrepreneurship?  The trend that most excites you?

The most exciting thing I am seeing is a growing appreciation of the role of empathy in technology and the emerging understanding that, in healthcare, we need to use technology as means not as an end.  We can hear this theme from leaders like Thomas Goetz and Sean Duffy, who talk about the analog divide and appreciate that technology companies like Google Life Sciences have had the wisdom to hire people like Jessica Mega, a cardiologist with a deep appreciation for the human aspect and not just science.

David Shaywitz and Lisa Suennen at Tech Tonics taping

David Shaywitz and Lisa Suennen at Tech Tonics taping

You are a prolific writer for Forbes and other publications.  Why is writing so important to you?

For me writing is simply a way of organizing experience.  I often don’t know what I think about an experience until I sit down and talk it through with someone or, more often, write about it and synthesize and interpret what it means.  The act of writing is a way to see the meaning in experience and make sense of the world.  My favorite thing I have written is a piece for Atlantic about balancing passion and process.

I also love doing our Tech Tonics podcast because the people and personalities really come out and you can get to the realness behind people’s thinking.

I have never met anyone with as good a memory for book, movie and TV quotes, particularly when it comes to comedic references.  What makes you laugh and how does humor play a role in your life and work? 

Growing up I always fell asleep listening to Woody Allen and Steve Martin and Carl Reiner.  Today it’s Family Guy.  Anything involving Mel Brooks or Steve Martin or Chevy Chase are my go-to pop culture references.  (note from the author: I happen to know his actual most-used silly reference is Treasure Bath).

You come from a highly successful family – parents, wife and brothers are all physicians and scientists.  How does this affect your life?  Are your children similarly inclined?

My most important family influence was feeling loved and cared for in a warm family that happened to have two parents who are very successful physician scientists (note from the author: both of David’s parents are endowed professors at Yale). We had an emphasis on family and support which continues to the present day and which is most valuable thing I took away from growing up.  My two brothers (also physicians) and I are now trying to bring this to our families.

My sense of priority is much more about having a warm, loving, compassionate family than about the medical stuff. The message I got and that I want to send my kids is that you can have that kind of family while still pursuing high powered and impactful careers.  Yes, we had a pretty intellectual household with emphasis on good ideas and deep discussions, but it was also very down to earth.

You have often written and spoken about the importance of gender equality in the workplace and everywhere.  You are a firm supporter of the right of women to have equal opportunity to men.  Where does that come from?

Because it’s 2015, like Prime Minister Trudeau said.  All I can add is, “As opposed to what??  It’s like: “You really seem to be in favor of this gravity thing.”  This shouldn’t have to be a discussion topic at this point in our history and it’s sad that it is.

I guess this is a product of growing up in a world where the default assumption was equality of gender. I never had occasion to think differently; it was part of the context in which I grew up.

You have three daughters.  What is your hope for them?  Are they legally obligated to follow in the family tradition and become physician scientists?

I just want for them to be happy and love what they do.  For all the criticism, medicine is wonderful, but there can also be an enormous amount of sadness associated with it.  I’m not sure I’d wish an internal medicine residency on anybody.  If my daughters want to do that of course I’d support them.  My wife and I are physicians but I don’t see us as doctors so much as business people at this point (note from the author: David’s wife is an infectious disease expert and currently VP Clinical Sciences at Gilead; she played a significant role in the clinical development of Sovaldi).  My kids are still trying to figure out what I actually do.  I suppose they will osmose some affection for medicine but who knows.  My youngest just announced she wanted to be a baker.  God bless.  My oldest has declared her plans to be an entrepreneur.  The middle has decided to be an actor.

My wife and I are incredibly involved parents, but on the other hand we have busy jobs and we have weeks where we can’t figure out the origami of childcare and travel.  Somehow we always figure out how to be present for the kids. Kids should benefit from seeing parents who love their jobs and who are making an impact but also have a normal life.  When (wife) Diana presented Sovaldi at the FDA, I woke the kids up to watch the FDA video cast.  They said, “Wow, that’s mommy on TV.  Cool.  What’s for breakfast?”

What is your “mantra”? The thing you say to yourself and others over and over? 

Really, I have three.  They are:

  1. I’m good enough and smart enough and doggone it people like me (quoting, of course, from Stuart Smalley)
  2. Tomorrow I’m going to eat more carefully
  3. Lets find the path forward.

I know you think that last one might be nerdy and contrived, but it’s not meant to be.  But the truth is, I always feel people can find a way to get things done together and move ahead.

What’s the legacy you want to leave, personal or professional?

A family that is as close and loving as the one I grew up in.

Do you ever miss the Boston world of intellectual medicine?

Let me just say we are raising our kids as Red Sox and Patriots fans.

Tom Brady: did he or didn’t he deflate the balls?

I am going to leave the contemplation of Tom Brady’s balls to others.   And that’s a wrap.


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