Dr. Hildegund Ertl, Wistar immunologist and vaccine developer, has been featured in local and national media and sought after by journalists as a source of expert opinions. A well-spoken scientist, always available to help unravel the many questions related to the varied COVID-19 vaccines, she is also working on her own vaccine.
"I enjoy talking to reporters, some ask very interesting and thought-provoking questions," said Dr. Ertl, who is a professor in the Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center and was the founding director of the former Wistar Vaccine Center. "The main reason why I feel compelled to answer those questions is to lend my voice against vaccine hesitancy, a threat to public health and especially serious during a pandemic. I think I have something to offer to this cause because I’ve studied vaccines all my life and I hope that experts going on TV or in papers saying that vaccines are safe will convince more people to get vaccinated. These vaccines are our best bet to end the emergency, they are safe and are being monitored extremely carefully."
Dr. Ertl and her team are researching and developing vaccines for many infectious diseases, including HIV and cancer. And for the last two decades, Dr. Ertl has been studying adenoviruses, one of the common cold viruses, as a carrier for vaccine delivery.
Since adenovirus infections are common in people, most would be immune to them and a vaccine created from a human adenovirus might not be potent enough to prevent infection. To circumvent this issue, Dr. Ertl’s team uses chimpanzee adenoviruses, against which humans do not have immunity.
Dr. Ertl has worked on immunology and vaccine research since the very beginning of her career and as part of her medical training.
"During my internship and residency in microbiology, I enjoyed interacting with patients. I was very young looking and my very first patient, to whom I was supposed to administer a vaccine, looked at my baby face and said he would not let me touch him, and left," she recalls. "That convinced me that I was better off pursuing my main passion: research and biology."
After a two-year prestigious research fellowship in Australia, Dr. Ertl was recruited by Harvard and eventually joined Wistar in 1987 and has been a steady and productive member of the faculty ever since. "I never left because I care deeply about Wistar," she said.
In these three decades, Dr. Ertl witnessed the many changes the Institute — and academia in general — went through.
"I think with funding restrictions came a tendency for scientists to turn away from basic research and go with the flow of what is ‘hot’ at the moment, while innovative ideas are less supported," Dr. Ertl noted. "I think this is going to have a cost in the long run."
"Other aspects have greatly improved, though. Women, for example, have it easier now than when I started. Science used to be much more discriminatory against women. I would propose an idea and my colleagues would not care for it, except everyone would love that same idea at a later time when it came from a man."
"Personally, I don’t think this affected me in major ways," Dr. Ertl added.
"Besides being very determined, I’m tall and naturally a bit abrasive, so I think I can be intimidating and that helped me stand up for myself," she said.
The direct and candid attitude with which she gets her point across has also served her well in her scientific and academic career.
If she could do her career all over again, Dr. Ertl wouldn’t change much. "During lockdown I realized I should have taken more vacations and traveled more. I love places like Amazonia, Mongolia and Alaska, with few people and a lot of nature."
For now, you can find her in the lab every day.
"I don’t like working from home. There’s a place for everything — home is where I am my private self, while the lab is where I’m Dr. Ertl. I enjoy both aspects of my life, but I think there needs to be a separation."
"When I’m home, I like gardening. I have a big yard because I have a house full of pets: two Great Danes, three cats and a parrot I call Matilda," she said. "You can say it’s a mad house, but chaos doesn’t bother me. At some point I’ve had up to eight graduate students in my lab, and that can be quite chaotic too."
"I also love reading and hunting for good second-hand books at the library, which of course the pandemic has ruined."
When asked if she ever misses Europe, where she grew up, Dr. Ertl said that she might move back there or to North Africa, where her family lives, after her retirement.
"But obviously I’m not going to retire anytime soon."
Dr. Ertl is one of our key opinion leaders at Wistar, and you can read more about her scientific views in her latest articles by going to: wistar.org/inthenews.