I was born in 1966 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which was then a Republic of the Soviet Union. Both of my parents and my two brothers are mathematicians and I grew up hearing about things like “von Neumann algebra on a Hilbert Space” – concepts too abstract for me to comprehend. I spent most of my school years playing basketball, until about the eighth grade, when I decided to become a scientist. For the next two years, I spent most of my time reading books on botany, zoology, physiology and evolution, which my father rented out for me from a college library. I have always been fond of beetles and my first experiments, at the age of seven, were to observe their behavior after I would let them inhale cheap cologne thus rendering them intoxicated.
I went to college at Tashkent University, majoring in Biology. Though I was eager to study, my college experience was very frustrating. Every fall we had to go to the cotton fields for a couple of months, picking cotton by hand from sunrise to sunset. This left little time for studying. In the summer of 1984, after I finished the first year of college, I was drafted to serve two years in the Soviet Army. Military service was intellectually debilitating and I thought my chances of becoming a scientist were ruined. However, I managed to finish college where I’d had to rely mostly on self-education.
I was very lucky to have met a famous biochemist, Vladimir Skulachev, at Moscow State University, who arranged for me to enter a PhD program in his Department in 1990. This coincided with a severe economic crisis in Russia, which made experimental research practically impossible. Consequently, I spent most of my time in the libraries, reading up on various subjects related to molecular evolution. My main interest at the time was the evolution of cell communications and molecular recognition. This drew my attention to immunology, an interest that developed after I attended lectures given by Garry Abelev, one of the founders of tumor immunology. Abelev became my unofficial second mentor and his and Skulachev’s guidance and encouragement were instrumental in my early development as a scientist.
One day, while studying in a library, I came across an article written by Charles Janeway Jr. published in 1989: “Proceedings of the Cold Spring Harbor Symposia”. The article described a theory of pattern recognition and innate control of adaptive immunity. I became interested in the concept and contacted Janeway to discuss its various implications.
In 1993, while still a PhD student in Moscow, I got a UNESCO fellowship to study protein evolution in the laboratory of Russell Doolittle at UCSD. Doolittle is a pioneer in the field of bioinformatics and a wonderful teacher. Learning about protein evolution directly from him was an invaluable experience. Although I only spent a few months in his lab, Doolittle’s mentorship had a long-lasting impact on my scientific development. While I was in San Diego, he arranged for me to meet with local immunologists, including Mel Cohn and Dick Dutton. With recommendations from Doolittle and Dutton, I was lucky to join Janeway’s lab without any credentials or research experience.
I arrived at Yale in early 1994 to start my postdoctoral studies with Janeway. Our main objective was to identify receptors that control activation of the adaptive immune system. At the time, nothing was known about these receptors and what they were supposed to look like. Based on an assumption that such receptors should activate the NF-B signaling pathway, we identified a human homologue of the Drosophila Toll protein in early 1996. The Toll protein in Drosophila was known at the time to signal through the NF-B signaling pathway during embryonic development. However, in 1996 Bruno Lemaitre and Jules Hoffmann discovered that the same receptor is also involved in the fly’s immune defense. This further reinforced our assumption that mammalian Toll may be involved in microbial recognition and activation of adaptive immunity. Subsequent studies by many laboratories have elucidated many fascinating aspects of biology of the mammalian Toll-like receptor family.
Sadly, Charlie Janeway passed away in 2003. His ideas made a fundamental impact on our understanding of the immune system. He was a remarkable scientist and I was truly fortunate to work with him for almost ten years.
In 1999, I joined the faculty of Immunobiology at Yale University Medical School, where I remain to this day. In 2000 I became an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I have been fortunate to have many talented students and postdoctoral fellows work with me over the past ten years.
In 2007 I married my wife Akiko Iwasaki, who is also a faculty member in our Department. We have two young daughters, Emi and Naomi, who keep us very busy and happy.
28 September 2011, Hong Kong