Love and Medicine

These HMS couples unite their love of science, academic medicine — and each other

As the lyrics of an old song go, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.”

But what about love and work? Or love and medicine? Or love and science? What about couples who share their homes and work side by side in the lab? Or those who found love in the hospital?

Harvard Medical School has its share of faculty twosomes — on the Quad and at HMS-affiliated hospitals. With Valentine’s Day this month, Harvard Medicine News talked with three of them: A couple who has collaborated closely in the lab since 1979; another who met while working together on a clinical hospital study, and a third that met at an HMS departmental happy hour.

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Here’s an inside look at how their marriages thrive alongside bustling careers in the lab, clinic, and classroom.

Complementary Science

Harrison and Kirchhausen in front of a digital screen with molecular imagery looking into each other's eyes
Tomas Kirchhausen (left) and Steve Harrison outside the Kirchhausen Lab.

Tomas Kirchhausen, professor of cell biology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital

Stephen Harrison, the Giovanni Armenise – Harvard Professor of Basic Biomedical Science in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital

When they met: 1978, at the University of Chicago, where Harrison gave a seminar about the first atomic structure of a virus visualized by X-ray crystallography

When they married: 2013, soon after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied a range of benefits to legally married gay couples.

Combined years in medicine: 97

  • Read the interview with Kirchhausen and Harrison

    Harvard Medicine News: Do you mingle medicine and science within your marriage?

    Harrison: We certainly talk a huge amount about our science all the time. I grew up in a family in which my father was a physician and my mother a biochemist, and they had a joint laboratory. So, I grew up with conversations at dinner about what happened during the day in experiments, but my parents were very good about making sure they asked us about what happened at school first. One's science and one's daily life had always seemed inseparable to me, just because that's what I knew. Science was the way you functioned in the world, not something divorced from daily experience. And I think Tommy and I hit it off that way.

    Kirchhausen: I can say that we've been doing this since we met. We mingle science with life, politics, art, culture, traveling, everything — it's a continuum. And it's amazing. It's an incredible relationship.

    Harrison: I think both of us tend to interpret our daily experience in the world in the same language, and the same analytical framework, that you use in the lab. Tommy will use words that have technical meaning, like resonate, to describe something every day. And I do the same.

    Kirchhausen: We have our own interests in science, but there are some intersections, and some things that we do together.

    Harrison: Tommy has built up a quite remarkable instrumentation facility in his lab that is an extraordinary resource for some of the goals I've had for many years. Right now, we're collaborating closely on a problem that I've been working on for a long time involving how viruses get into cells. That's built on decades of work on virus structure in my own lab and is at the next stage of a collaboration. We had already published together on this subject in 2014, and this is a key stage, too.

    HMNews: Do you have any examples of how you have celebrated each other’s successes in your scientific endeavors?

    Harrison: I tend to be someone who doesn't celebrate scientific successes and just starts thinking about the next question.

    Kirchhausen: I’ll give you an example. [Holds up a champagne bottle with a faded label.] Here I have a bottle.

    The text says ‘structure of clathrin,’ and the date is Jan. 21, 1999. Now, this is the first and the last time I had a bottle of something that I opened. This was to celebrate solving the atomic structure of an important protein. Steve taught me, you go to the next problem. So, I don't have any more bottles.

    HMNews: When did you meet and marry? 

    Kirchhausen: We met in 1978.

    Harrison: Tommy came to Boston in 1979 and was in my laboratory for six years until he was recruited to what was then the anatomy department at HMS.

    Kirchhausen: As soon as the Supreme Court said it was a go, we got married. That was in August 2013, and the Supreme Court made the decision, I'm going to say, in June of that year.

    Harrison: The wedding was in our backyard, and we invited people who mattered a lot to our relationship.

    Kirchhausen: It was very cool because I was traveling and an email arrived from a friend, letting me know that the decision had just happened. I remember the email said something like, Now you have to do it. And I replied, one sentence, Will you? That is, would he marry us? Indeed, he did. He had to get a one-day permission from the governor so he could do the ceremony. I think it was very important for both of us. Our close friends came, and it was a great occasion.

    HMNews: What do you do for fun outside the lab?

    Kirchhausen: We like to travel and visit nice places that have cultural value — cities in Europe, interesting museums, for example.

    Steve loves to cook and he's a very, very good cook. So well, that I don't cook anymore. Every night we have, in my opinion, a gourmet dinner. And he doesn't let me clean afterwards, which is perfect deal. Right? And Steve plays the piano extremely well. Every night I ask him if he could play a little bit. And he will play also.

    Harrison: We also enjoy going to concerts. We have a symphony subscription and a Celebrity Series subscription that includes chamber music and piano soloists.

    Kirchhausen: And Steve is an amazing gardener. He actually can think how the garden will look in 10 years. And sure enough, that's how the garden looks 10 years later.

    Harrison: We have a house in Woods Hole on the Cape. So there's a garden there, and a garden in Brighton where we live. And that's time enough, but I've tried to plant them in such a way that they need relatively modest attention most of the time.

    HMNews: What is the one quality about your partner that you most appreciate and love?

    Kirchhausen: He's generous, thoughtful. He cares about people — more than anybody notices and is aware of. He's incredible.

    Harrison: Tommy is an extraordinarily warm, interesting, intellectually committed person who has embodied some of the things I've tried to do both scientifically and personally for many years: that is, to have a long-term vision of where one is headed in science and stick thoughtfully and adaptably to it.

    His personality complements mine, I think, and his science is certainly an outstanding complement to mine.

  • Read the interview with Abraham and Léger-Abraham

    Harvard Medicine News: Do you mingle medicine and science within your marriage?

    Abraham: We’ve learned that what is nice about being a couple with both members involved in science and medicine, it creates this intellectual intimacy where we can always connect at different levels by talking science.

    Léger-Abraham: We like talking science all the time — literally, all the time. It’s easy to share because our labs are next to each other and because we see each other at home.

    I think scientists have a tendency to reach out to their mentors and colleagues to talk science, and sometimes you don't get an immediate response or the immediate support that you need.  It’s nice to know that the other person is going to understand what you're going through and be able to not only listen, but give perspective on it.

    HMNews: Can you share an example where you’ve supported one another or celebrated one of your successes?

    Abraham: I guess it's kind of hard to answer because I feel like those moments are so rare in science. I would say, perhaps more realistically, we spend most of our time talking about the stuff that doesn't work and trying to help each other get through those hard patches.

    Léger-Abraham: Probably one of the best examples is that I was involved in writing an R01 grant with Gerhard Wagner. We submitted the grant and initially it didn't get funded. And then we resubmitted. And on the day of our wedding, I found out that the grant was getting funded. So that was another reason to celebrate. And it reflects very well how our personal life is so intertwined with science.

    And recently, we've switched to celebrating  whenever we have an opportunity, and not waiting for a special event or waiting for that paper to get published or that grant to get funded.

    HMNews: Is there something in particular that unites you in your scientific pursuits?

    Abraham: This is going to sound cheesy, but I think it’s our love for structural biology.

    Léger-Abraham: I was actually going to say the same. We both see structural biology as an art. It’s just beautiful to us. We use different techniques. When we started dating, Jonathan was using crystallography and I was using NMR spectroscopy, and we constantly bugged each other about what was the better technique. But we have now both turned to using Cryo-EM, and I think that we found a good agreement there.

    I think also, our passion for infectious diseases. Jonathan studies viruses and I have a passion for neglected tropical diseases, and that's why my lab studies parasites.

    HMNews: What would you like to share with our readers about when you first met?

    Abraham: There were a number of things that made it obvious to me — maybe not to Mel at first — that we were a great fit. I remember first meeting her at a happy hour in the BCMP department. We were both structural biologists; both doing research in infectious diseases; she grew up in Montreal, which is near where I grew up in Laval, both speaking French as a first language. And as soon as I learned she also had Haitian ancestry like I did, I was like, that's it! I knew then and there.

    I think with all those links — it seemed too good to be true.

    Léger-Abraham: Following that — we had a lot of great conversations on the M2, the shuttle between Longwood and Cambridge.

    HMNews: What do you do together for fun outside of biomedicine and work?

    Abraham: Mel is really into competitive sports, but I'm not competitive enough. She loves to play squash, but I really can't keep up with her. We sometimes work out a lot together too, going for runs or weightlifting.

    Léger-Abraham: It's true that I'm quite competitive — not necessarily with other people, but really against myself. Like, can I beat my 5k running time? Jonathan is also doing a lot more running lately.

    We love music. There's always music playing in the house. I used to play violin and piano. We love classical music, and music from all over the world. To do something fun in the lab we started coming up with a song of the week, where people share a song that they love, and then we make sure that others in the lab can discover it.

    HMNews: What is the one quality about your partner that you most appreciate and love?

    Abraham: Tenacity

    Léger-Abraham: Discipline

  • Read the interview with Neill and Curfman

    Harvard Medicine News: How do you mingle medicine and medical education within your marriage? 

    Curfman: We have many discussions on these kinds of topics. Our professional interests are certainly a focus of our personal conversations quite often.

    Neill: I frequently talk with Greg about the MD curriculum: the changes that we're making, what his experiences were as a medical student at HMS, even though that’s different from what it's like now; also, because he teaches in the MD program and has for many years. He has been an attending at Massachusetts General Hospital and on the clinical service there. So, it's really helpful for me to get his perspective on what it's like, not only to be a medical student and a resident, but also a teacher of medical students.

    HMNews: Have there been any changes or milestones throughout your careers, or recently, where you have supported each other?

    Neill: The most recent change in our professional lives was when Greg took the position at JAMA, which means that he is traveling back and forth between here and Chicago. At first I thought that was going to be really hard, but it's actually worked out quite well. We don't have young children to take care of now, so that probably makes a difference when you have that kind of a long-distance relationship. It's given both of us an opportunity to meet new people and to experience the city of Chicago. That has been a positive in our recent history.

    Greg also has been very supportive of my professional life. He’s helped me through decisions that I've made over the years.

    HMNews: What particular things have united you in your respective areas of medical education?

    Curfman: One in particular that we've spent quite a bit of time talking about, and thinking about, is the matter of affirmative action in university admissions. In particular, what might happen at the medical school level if affirmative action is overturned by the Supreme Court.

    Our son Geoffrey, as a federal circuit law clerk, has helped us think through some of the legal aspects of this issue. And in my work at JAMA, I asked a medical educator to write an article on this subject. And this was a person Jane recommended who she thought would be a good author. And he turned out to be outstanding. So that's a recent example. We won't know the outcome until summer, but it will be quite important. And it's brought the three of us, Jane and I and our son, together on a mission to understand this complicated issue and what its implications might be.

    HMNews: What do you do together for fun outside of work?

    Neill: About eight years ago, we bought a house in New Hampshire. It's sort of a vacation house, but we go there on the weekends pretty regularly. It’s a respite place for us but also just a great place to be if we want to be outdoors and in a really quiet environment. We both also read a lot. I would say Greg is more of a podcast person than I am though.

    For the past decade, Greg has been the chef in our family. So, when he is at home, and even when we are both in Chicago, he makes dinner. He has a great cadre of vendors that he turns to for high quality ingredients. So that is something else we do when we're not working or exercising. We both exercise regularly and really enjoy that.

    And over the many years that we've been married, we've traveled a fair amount. But we're not doing as much of that as we used to.

    HMNews: What is one quality about your partner that you most appreciate and love?

    Neill: This is a little nerdy, but I think that Greg is probably the most disciplined person that I know. I really admire that. It’s not the most romantic, but I think he's really someone who holds himself, and others, but mostly himself first, to very high standards.

    Curfman: I would say honesty, integrity; she’s the most honest person I know, never deviates from being totally honest and open. That's just one important quality.

    HMNews: What else could you share with our readers, especially student couples, that might give them an inside look at a marriage in academic medicine?

    Neill: We both have had demanding positions over the years that we've been married, the time that we've been at Harvard. And yet we've been able to find some way to balance having a marriage, having a child, and doing our jobs. I think that's partly because there's been a partnership, which I think is really important. And I really appreciated that about Greg — that he's been an equal partner in our marriage and in our being parents.

    Curfman: Well, what I would say if I was offering free advice, is that even though being a professional couple is going to be challenging, sometimes complicated, difficult — it's all worth it. Now we're living apart several days a week and I'm traveling back and forth, but we've made this work out.

    Neill: One of the ways that we have managed our long-distance relationship during the week is by having dinner together over FaceTime.

    Curfman: You might wonder, how can this possibly work? I would say be confident and have no fear, and go after your ambitions.