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Department: Chemistry

Hawn Chemistry

Thomas Hawn ’87

Assistant Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases,
University of Washington School of Medicine

Cultivating curiosity

My academic pursuits at Princeton included seeking opportunities that cultivated curiosity, valued imagination, and challenged intellectual boundaries. Toward this end, I pursued course work in literature, political science, history, and chemistry. I found great value in taking upper-level courses in all of these disciplines and searching for teachers of intellectual passion in these domains. I ultimately chose to major in chemistry—but not because it was the “best” choice. I knew that I would always read literature avidly and follow politics and history with great enthusiasm. In contrast, I thought that pursuing one of the sciences would be harder to do without more formal guidance and access to some basic infrastructure. Within chemistry, I was fortunate to have a senior thesis adviser who was a role model for these pursuits of curiosity and intellectual challenges. My major was a fruitful avenue for cultivating these broader interests, but not the only or even “best” road to pursue those goals.

Integrating my passions

After completing an M.D.-Ph.D. degree, I did clinical training in internal medicine and then infectious diseases. I am currently an assistant professor at the University of Washington in the division of infectious diseases, where I do a mixture of research and clinical work. The research is focused on understanding the human immune response to pathogens and why people have different susceptibility to infections. I have a particular interest in tuberculosis and understanding how to make an effective vaccine.

Although chemistry was a useful major for preparation for a career in research and clinical medicine, the value of cultivating curiosity was far more important. Courses at Princeton in literature, history, and politics fostered a life-long interest in these topics that continues to actively influence my research in hard-to-define ways as well as provide immense pleasure. I find that the imaginative world of fiction engages a dialectical process that infuses my scientific research in an indefinable and positive way. History and politics have shaped my research in a direction that is public-health-oriented and fostered a life perspective that interweaves with direct clinical care of patients. My advice would be to find one or many avenues of study as well as mentors at Princeton that foster your curiosity and imagination and inspire you intellectually. The specific choice of a major was far less important than these qualities for my long-term career satisfaction.