Shiv Pillai has shaped his life around his passions, and he advises his students to do the same.
“You can’t teach passion. You have to acquire it,” Pillai says. “It is something that resonates with you. There will always be some sort of career around this passion. Take hold of this passion, enjoy it, and find some fun in it. Do what you want to do.”
As a professor of Medicine and Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard Medical School who teaches in the Molecular and Cellular Biology program at Harvard College and the program director of an NIH-funded Autoimmune Center of Excellence at Massachusetts General Hospital, Pillai uses his passion for science to study autoimmunity, understand a variety of diseases, and create new therapies in order to help patients with these diseases. Recently, Pillai’s lab has been researching COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is one of the areas where we are finding many interesting things, but it is also linked to the tragedy of people losing loved ones. Still, it has been an extraordinary experience watching how many people and researchers from all over the world have ended up working together to get things done.”
While growing up in India, Pillai was quick to find a passion for theatre, acting in many theatrical productions and later going on to help establish a well-known theater group. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that Pillai discovered his love for science.
“When I was 14, my mother gave me a book called Microbe Hunters. It described the experiments that led to the incredible discovery that certain diseases were caused by germs,” Pillai recounts. “The book appealed to me because everything was written in the first person, as if the author was there watching scientists discover that microbes caused disease. While reading about this study within the book, I became really interested in the science and decided to pursue it further.”
Pillai went on to study medicine at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India and received a doctorate degree in biochemistry from Calcutta University. Many of Pillai’s experiences as a student influence how he teaches undergraduates and medical students today.
“I went to this wonderful medical school in south India with a campus built by American missionaries. It was beautiful, and you got to know everyone on campus. I would often go have dinner at the faculty members’ houses,” Pillai says. “On a Saturday night, I would tell the professor I was coming over and they would welcome me. I became used to this intimacy between teachers and students, and it was important to me. I don’t always get to this same level at the College, but I do try to, and many students stay in touch with me for years.”
In the College classroom, Pillai teaches the popular course “MCB169: Molecular and Cellular Immunology.” This year, the course will look a little different.
“One of the greats of medicine once said that you can learn all of medicine from studying a patient with syphilis. And I think you could say that today with COVID-19,” Pillai says. “The course is going to use COVID-19 as a frame of reference to understand immunology.”
Though the course may be changing in some ways, Pillai continues to channel his childhood passion for theater into his teaching. As a professor, Pillai finishes every lecture by performing a rhyme for his students.
“When I started teaching undergraduates, I wrote a couple of long rhymes which summarized my lectures, in order to help students better understand the material. Of course, because I’m a thespian, there was no way I was just going to read it. I performed it.”
“In 2007, at the beginning of the course, my head Teaching Fellow Kevin stood up on the very first day of class, without talking to me beforehand, and said that I would have a rhyme at the end of every lecture. I only had four rhymes at the time! But I did end up writing one for every lecture, and I am glad that I did. It has become a fixture of the course now,” Pillai says.
Outside of his classroom and lab, Pillai enjoys spending time with his family, playing tennis, reading literature, and attending theater productions.
Pillai has found great success through following his passions for science and theatre, but he also recognizes that he has had tremendous support along his journey to his current career. This guidance from professors and lab mentors inspires Pillai to be there for his own students today. Though Pillai has many passions, he wants his students to know, above all, that he is at Harvard to help them. His teaching, his performances, and his storytelling are his specific ways of helping students learn, and also loving the process of teaching itself.
“I tell the students that I am a frustrated thespian looking for a captive audience,” Pillai says. “My students, they are my captive audience.
Shiv Pillai teaches many courses in the Molecular and Cellular Biology department, including "Molecular and Cellular Immunology," which can be viewed in the course directory.