Dr. Larry Schlesinger, president and CEO of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, will be recognized as the World Affairs Council of San Antonio’s International Citizen of the Year on Wednesday, March 24 during a virtual award presentation. With more than 40 years in academic medicine and scientific research, Schlesinger has spent the past four years working to make Texas Biomed an internationally recognized name in the scientific community.
The World Affairs Council of San Antonio has honored one individual each year since 1985 who has significantly contributed to San Antonio’s growth as an international city. Past honorees include Tom Frost, Charles Butt, “Red” McCombs, Henry Cisneros, Phil Hardberger, and Gordon Hartman. Next Wednesday, the council will recognize Schlesinger for his lifetime of scientific accomplishments.
“Texas Biomed is on the front end of the discovery pipeline of infectious diseases,” said Peggy Pace, chair for the Board of Trustees of the World Affairs Council. “Their part in fighting COVID-19 underscores the significance of the work they have been doing locally for the past 80 years. Dr. Schlesinger’s experience combined with the nonprofit’s historical leadership continues to advance human health and save lives around the world,”
The start of a scientist
Schlesinger was born in Montclair, New Jersey. He grew up 15 miles down the road in Lake Hiawatha, a tiny township where his immigrant parents raised him and his two siblings. The youngest of the three children, Schlesinger recalls his humble beginnings fondly.
“Even early before high school I was one of those kinds of kids who was always curious,” he said. “I always had a chemistry kit and was blowing up things in my basement continuously.”
With a Czech father and a Romanian mother, Schlesinger said he grew up around a lot of different languages. Apart from English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and multiple Slavic languages were spoken in his home.
Schlesinger grew up a competitive swimmer, and was on his high school’s soccer, basketball, and track teams. His father, a former professional soccer player for Czechoslovakia’s national team, encouraged all three children to get involved in team sports and to study hard.
“I think that was important in building my core values; hard work, getting things accomplished, and having high goals were a part of my family,” Schlesinger said. “It’s very important when I reflect back on my early upbringing because I think sports really shaped my dynamics and respect for others, and others’ opinions, and working together to achieve great things.”
The education of an educator
Drawn to the sciences, particularly biology, Schlesinger decided that he wanted to study medicine after high school. He was scouted for several potential soccer scholarships. However, a severe injury to his hamstring his senior year cut his athletic career short. Accepted to Cornell, Schlesinger refocused his go-getter attitude onto academics and extracurriculars.
During his undergraduate tenure, Schlesinger served as president of Cornell’s Sigma Phi chapter. He recalls meeting several famous guests who visited Sigma Phi’s fraternity house, including Isaac Asimov and Muhammad Ali.
Schlesinger recalls being particularly interested in neurobiology and worked in his first official laboratory setting during college. Behavioral science and immunology came to spark his interest during his time at Cornell as well, he said.
Apart from premedical classes, Schlesinger also took several hotel-focused business courses, including wine tasting, and briefly considered going down a business-centric life path.
“It was really a terrific environment in college where I learned a lot about different walks of life, which I think is really important in college,” Schlesinger said. “Truth be told I applied to the hotel school, as well as to medical schools, and got into hotel school before medical school. I actually considered that career, until I got into medical school.”
After graduating from Cornell in 1978, Schlesinger attended Rutgers New Jersey Medical School while coaching semi-pro soccer on the side. Schlesinger started to become excited about research and noticed his thirst for discovery.
After graduating medical school in 1982, Schlesinger did his residency in internal medicine at the University of Michigan. Schlesinger recalls this period of his life as a time when he was in “an incredible environment of science.”
Following his three years of residency as an internist, Schlesinger was invited to stay on for a year as the chief medical resident – a leadership role that helped spark his interest in mentoring other scientists.
At the encouragement of a mentor, Schlesinger decided to pursue a research-driven path that would help him foster and cultivate his interest in science. Selecting a subspecialty that fit this category was easy, he said.
“I loved the detective aspect of infectious diseases,” Schlesinger said.
His particular area of interest was the lungs – Schlesinger helped push the boundaries of science in what is understood about infectious diseases and lung physiology.
“I began to feel like infectious diseases needed to do things differently, and those types of leaps in science were not going to occur at individual laboratories,” he said. “They needed big programs that would bring different types of people together. I envisioned a major enterprise where we could really work in large teams.”
Schlesinger’s vision took him to the Ohio State University, where he served as director of the division of infectious diseases in the department of internal medicine until 2011. Schlesinger went on to become the university’s first chair of microbial infection and immunity and founded the university-wide Center for Microbial Interface Biology (today known as the Infectious Diseases Research Institute).
With 15 years at Ohio State under his belt, Schlesinger felt it was time to again move on.
“And then this small place in San Antonio called,” he said, jokingly.
Gone to Texas
When he got a call from his longtime friend Dr. Robert Clark that Texas Biomed was looking for a new president and CEO, Schlesinger said he’d already been looking into different opportunities across the nation, wondering where he could help make an impact.
“I really wanted to be in an environment where I could more nimbly move science to a place that I could see – in my lifetime – the impact of that science on improving human lives,” he said.
With Schlesinger’s natural abundance of energy, Clark said Schlesinger immediately came to mind for the position.
“He works well with people, he gets folks excited about whatever the project or program is,” Clark said. “He’s thoughtful, creative, and I thought that was a really good combination because I firmly believe that those types of positions need someone who is both a really good scientist and an excellent leader.”
Schlesinger was named president and CEO of the San Antonio-based Texas Biomedical Research Institute in 2017, where he continues to carry out a strategic planning process.
“I think as an organization, we’re still early in our change in developing vision,” he said. “But, boy, do we have some great people that we’ve recruited in. I think we’re moving with great speed in so many impactful ways.”
The one thread that Schlesinger said ties all his career moves and interests together is teamwork. Schlesinger notes his career has been marked by being able to put together teams of people to do things that haven’t been done before.
“By having a broad vision and respecting the diversity of human thought,” he said, “I’ve been able to create environments of learning and of discovery that haven’t existed before, and I really, truly derive great excitement in doing that.”
Schlesinger said he looks forward to continuing the growth and reach of Texas Biomed, and feels honored to receive this award.
“I’m certainly in the company of major influential people, and it just humbles me further,” he said. “I’m so thankful to our team and to receive this recognition.”
Disclosure: The Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a San Antonio Report business member. For a full list of donors, click here.
Correction: One of the universities that was incorrectly identified has been updated to the correct name.