Christopher Austin ’82 rests for a moment. Trying to understand and resolve the COVID-19 pandemic means 12-plus-hour shifts for many administrators and researchers at the National Institutes of Health, where Austin is director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
“I’m virtually spending all my time on COVID,” Austin says. “I’m on videoconferences and teleconferences for over 10 hours a day. We’ve been tasked by the NIH to play a big role in the solution to this. Dr. [Anthony] Fauci’s institute has the infectious disease experts, while we’re the translational experts.”
The center seeks to improve the “translation” of scientific advances and research into new treatments and diagnostics to speed their delivery to patients. Congress created it in 2011; Austin joined that year, then was promoted to director in 2012.
“We’re developing in our labs new ways to test the effectiveness of drugs and, of course, we’ve turned all our attention to the COVID pandemic,” Austin says. Some of the research targets the proteins on the surface of the virus, blocking the virus from reproducing. “I can’t predict today what compound will interfere with that protein, so we’re screening lots of compounds in hope of finding the right one that does just that.”
In addition, researchers funded by the center are gathering data from COVID cases around the country, trying to find out why some people of various ages get sicker than others, and who might respond to the various therapies in development.
Austin earned his doctorate in 1986 from Harvard Medical School, where he studied brain stem-cell development, and completed his clinical training in internal medicine and neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also spent time delivering care in rural Alaska and Africa.
“I wanted to understand how health care actually happens in the community, and to do that most efficiently, I knew I needed to go to extreme environments,” he says. “I went to Kotzebue, Alaska, about 100 miles north of Nome, in the middle of winter, where the hospital was responsible for an enormous area, with villages of 50 or so people living 200 miles apart from each other. Later, I spent time at a 30-bed hospital in rural Swaziland where patients unable to walk were often pushed to the hospital in a wheelbarrow, and there was only one doctor on duty. Those experiences taught me a lot about health care delivery systems, and human models of illness and resiliency.”
After a stint at the pharmaceutical company Merck, he joined NIH in 2002 and was mentored by Director Francis Collins and Fauci. Austin says Fauci is a principal reason he’s been successful as director.
“When I started, I went to him with a lot of beginner’s problems and he never let on that they were stupid questions,” he says with a laugh. “He speaks the truth. And you can tell he loves what he’s doing.”
Hectic days mean Austin must forgo another love in his life: singing opera. At Princeton, the baritone belonged to the Glee Club and the Princeton Opera Theatre, and sang Beethoven’s Fidelio at Lincoln Center. But for now, he must content himself with endless meetings — and thoughts of Figaro.