Last fall, M. William “Willy” Lensch, PhD, the long-time director of HSCI’s Internship Program, was named executive director of the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (HSCRB). Lensch brings to the position experience directing the day-to-day operations of one of Boston Children’s Hospital’s largest laboratories, that of HSCI Executive Committee member George Daley, MD, PhD, as well as a personal interest in higher education. He spoke with Stem Cell Lines about his new role:
Q: How did you get involved with the HSCI Internship Program when it began in 2004?
Lensch: I’m guessing that people already had an idea that I was about more than sitting at the bench and doing research; that I was a person who might be interested in
working with students.
During undergrad, I worked as a teaching assistant for different classes. When I went to Oregon Health Sciences University for graduate school, which is an institution offering only advanced degrees, I petitioned the administration heavily for graduate teaching opportunities. It ruffled some feathers, but for those students aspiring to be part of higher education it was really important to be able to develop that experience. We eventually got those opportunities.
Q: Have you ever felt like you’ve had to choose between your interest in science and
your interest in education?
Lensch: It’s been a constant tension. I’ve always loved doing research and, until this last September, I’ve continually worked in a lab since 1985—but always while pursuing other interests. So, anytime you leave the lab to give a talk at a library, you make a choice, because there are other people in lab who are advancing their research.
Q: What do you miss about being in the lab?
Lensch: There’s a part about being a scientist that’s very satisfying when you figure something out. I tell students that the most difficult thing in the world is falling and staying in love—but they’re on their own there. The second most difficult thing is coming up with a truly original idea. And when you have an idea, it’s impossible not to work on it—you simply MUST try to figure out whether it works or not. Usually your idea is wrong, but once in a while you’re right, and it’s exhilarating.
Q: What makes HSCRB and the HSCI Internship Program unique in their ability to train future scientists?
Lensch: Science is a process. It doesn’t happen on its own. People do science. And so the individuals that are in this department and across HSCI are really our greatest assets. Stem cell research is a confluence of many fields. It’s a new way of a looking at the world that is very satisfying for people that are interested in understanding biology as well as improving clinical practice.
Success will come because of who our faculty members are—because Amy Wagers or Fernando Camargo are here. Our students have the opportunity to engage our faculty in the lab, to do open-ended research, to fail, to get feedback, and to try again from different angles until things work. Real research is what students want to be part of, and that’s what makes our programs so great.
Q: How do you judge whether students are successful?
Lensch: “Am I successful?” is one of the most difficult questions you can ever ask yourself. How do you define “success?” My definition would be, if you continue to seek, then you are successful. It’s about the process, not the goal. So when more than 98 percent of our interns at HSCI go on to get post-baccalaureate degrees, it’s wonderful, but that figure does not define success. Success is that they are continuing on a path of discovery long after their
summer at HSCI comes to an end.