Transforming Challenges into Rewards

June 19, 2017
Philip Eckhoff
Livermore, Calif

Exploring and extending the frontiers of knowledge is the essential part of getting a PhD in the applied sciences, and an integral part of this exploration is persisting through all the dead-ends, frustrations, and blind alleys. I am intimately familiar with these situations, and I have come up with a lot of things that don’t work (to paraphrase Edison) in the course of finding a few things that do.There is no map to get to the piece of new knowledge you seek: you yourself are the cartographer in novel territory. A PhD degree is basically a certificate that proves you know how to fail, fail repeatedly, but fail productively towards a new discovery. This condition describes most research after the PhD as well.

When exploring new territory on the frontiers of existing knowledge, it is helpful to have a strong group of friends who are also dealing with these ongoing frustrations and the occasional triumphs. Interacting with other people going through similar things is deeply encouraging, especially as their successes reveal that frontiers do indeed advance despite all the challenges that led up to it. A good community can also provide a forum for productive swapping of ideas, exchanges of toolsets, mutual learning, and a tremendous amount of fun. For me, the Hertz Foundation Community has been an essential part of making progress in a variety of difficult areas, achieving real impact, and actually enjoying the process.

First Impressions

I first encountered the Hertz Foundation as an undergraduate studying aerospace engineering and pure mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin where Hans Mark was a professor in the aerospace engineering department. The Hertz Fellowship stood out from the available options for its 5-year duration and selectivity, and its application process, which stood out for the uniqueness of the essay questions and the two-interview structure. It wasn’t enough to have a strong paper application, the interviews would apparently decide one’s fate. The interviews were challenging and also intellectually invigorating. I had to design a space elevator in my second interview! I left the second interview thinking that I wasn’t going to get a Fellowship, but still very grateful to have experienced the interview process. Later that spring, I found out that I had indeed received a Hertz Fellowship. The next step in my adventure had begun.

Life as Hertz Fellow

I moved to Princeton University to begin a PhD in Applied Mathematics, and my research focus ended up being computational approaches to study nonlinear dynamics of small networks of neurons. There was a great grad student community, and I learned a lot from my advisor and others in the department. One of my favorite parts of grad school, however, was becoming part of the Hertz Foundation community. I met a lot of great people at the Hertz Foundation 40th Anniversary Symposium in California, and even more over subsequent years of Hertz Fellow retreats and symposia. Each time, I would return to grad school having learned a lot and having been excited by seeing people pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge in many different fields. That shared optimism and excitement about science was infectious and was a key motivation for me throughout grad school.

In late 2007, I started up work on a project building computational models of malaria transmission to help plan the Eradication of malaria after having dinner with Lowell Wood at a Hertz Foundation event in Princeton. A few days before, he had been at the first Malaria Forum in Seattle, at which Bill and Melinda Gates, along with Margaret Chan of the World Health Organization, called for a renewed effort to eradicate malaria. This new effort would strongly benefit from new work modeling malaria – a dream job for me!

A Member of the Hertz Community

For most of my life before college, I had grown up on the north coast of Haiti, where my parents were both doctors at a humanitarian hospital. I had malaria many times growing up, but more importantly, I saw the tremendous need for improved Global Health all around me. I had already planned to move into computational epidemiology after grad school, but this was an opportunity even more ideal than I could have imagined. I quickly moved out to Seattle to work with Lowell Wood, Nathan Myhrvold, and others to turn this idea into reality. What started as a project with me as the one full-time person eventually grew into the Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM).

As the effort began to grow, Hertz Fellows were instrumental in expanding the work on malaria and extending it to other diseases. Nearly two dozen Hertz Fellows have made substantial contributions to the work at IDM, some through part-time work, some with a key insight, and some by making a career here. Anna Bershteyn started working with IDM in 2009, and she is now the leader of the HIV/TB Center within IDM, building mathematical models of HIV and TB to understand how to robustly and rapidly reduce incidence and deaths from these two devastating illnesses. I am incredibly grateful to have partnered with so many amazing people in advancing this work, and the Hertz Community has been an indispensable part of the work at IDM and also in other areas such as the Reinvent-the-Toilet Challenge.

Once a Hertz Fellow, Always a Hertz Fellow

My relationship with the Hertz Community continues to deepen and to provide new opportunities for impact. I have been interviewing about half the Hertz Fellowship Finalists since the 2009-2010 application cohort, and it is incredibly refreshing to meet so many amazing individuals bringing their new perspectives, abilities, and energy to the frontier. We are now launching a new Fellowship in Global Health and Development, in which new Hertz Fellows will be able to spend time at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation learning about some of the biggest challenges in Global Health and Global Development, and contributing their insight and innovation. The Hertz Community will continue to drive great progress for humanity, and it is a tremendous privilege to be part of it.

About Philip Eckhoff

Philip Eckhoff is the director of research at the Institute for Disease Modeling. Beyond modeling disease eradication, Philip’s research interests include technologies for improved public health in the developing world and other global development issues, such as vaccine delivery and sanitation. He received a Special Achievement Award by a Hertz Fellow in 2009 for his work on Malaria Modeling and participated in the winning design team for FASTRAC, a student designed and built satellite for the Nanosat-3 competition. Philip holds a BS in pure mathematics and pure engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a PhD in applied and computational mathematics from Princeton University.