Steven A. Rosenberg, MD, PhD
Steven Rosenberg always knew that he wanted to become a physician scientist, and he quickly advanced to become the chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at just 34 years of age.
Throughout his years at the NCI, he has pioneered cell transfer therapies in patients with a variety of widespread metastatic cancers and saved countless lives in the process.
Rosenberg credits his success in cancer therapies to the hard work and focus instilled in him at a very young age.
Rosenberg notes, “There are two properties that I think are associated with ability to succeed in science, and especially in the kind of translational science that I’m doing—trying to apply modern science to improve the care of cancer patients, which is what I’ve spent my entire career trying to do. You have to be passionate about what you do and you have to be highly focused in what you do.” He is certainly both of these things.
Rosenberg was introduced to the importance of hard work early on. As a young boy, his father owned a string of luncheonettes. Rosenberg wrote in his biographical work The Transformed Cel
l, “My parents’ influence on me was profound but subtle."
"No matter how early I got up in the morning, my father had already left for work. And my own experience in the luncheonette taught me an enormous amount about life, about how difficult it could be—not only my father’s but those of his more Runyonesque customers—and about how hard one must work to accomplish anything.”
From an early age, Rosenberg dreamed of becoming a doctor. He writes, “I recall my first ambition, aside from becoming a cowboy, was to become a doctor and a scientist.
They were heroes to me. I often cut out newspaper articles about the exploits of a scientist or a doctor, kept them in a scrapbook, and daydreamed about them.”
Rosenberg credits his older brother, who is a surgeon and scientist, with mentoring him when he was a young boy. “My brother…gave me books, usually about science. He was then studying medicine and was my role model. He believed that if he gave me enough stimulation, something would excite me, something would click. He was right,” Rosenberg recalled.
A Scientific Goal
Rosenberg excelled in academics throughout his early years. While still in high school, he laid out his plan to become a physician-scientist. Rosenberg attended a 6-year program from 1957 to 1964 at Johns Hopkins University, during which he earned both his bachelor’s degree and his MD, and completed a surgical internship at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, which later became part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
However, he did not stop there. He still required training to become the scientist he dreamed about.
Rosenberg writes, “From my very first interest in medicine as a boy, I wanted to combine research and clinical work. I intended to master medicine and probe deeply into the nature of disease. The goal never varied.” To achieve this goal, Rosenberg worked on his PhD in biophysics after his medical training, from 1964 to 1968, at Harvard University.
Following his graduate research at Harvard, Rosenberg returned to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital as a surgical resident from 1968 to 1969.
However, he soon grew restless and took a leave of absence to return to Harvard to perform immunological research from 1969 to 1970.
Rise to Chief of Surgery
After a year at Harvard as a research fellow, Rosenberg left for his first position at the NCI as a clinical associate in the Immunology Branch.
He recalls that it was exciting to be with the NCI, where he was able to work with some of the most talented scientists in the country. However, he missed medicine and taking part in the clinical care of patients. To fulfill this desire, he completed a surgical residency at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, during which he was able to continue performing his research.
After two years spent completing his surgical residency, Rosenberg turned down the offer of the chief of surgery position at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to return to the NCI. Rather, he decided to accept a position as the chief of surgery at the NCI in order to continue both his research and his patient care in a fast-paced, fostering environment.
Rosenberg writes of his decision that the “NCI had a mixture of laboratory and clinical resources that could not be duplicated anywhere else in the world.”