Like many college students working on Capitol Hill, Dr. Luke Messac began his summer 2007 internship at former Washington Rep. Jim McDermott’s office with high aspirations.
He would rub shoulders with those equipped with the power to legislate change, build meaningful relationships and transform into a leader. But he soon learned that the legislators he so admired weren’t as accessible as he originally believed them to be.
“Washington’s such a hierarchical place,” Messac told NBC News. “I spent all my time answering letters and emails from constituents and opening mail and I very rarely had any time to meet with decision makers or people with a lot of authority.”
So when the rising Harvard University senior sent the government’s top infectious disease expert an email requesting an interview for his undergraduate thesis about the politics of global AIDS during former President George W. Bush’s tenure, he wasn’t expecting Dr. Anthony Fauci to respond.
“I emailed him thinking, ‘What the heck? I’m here. Why don’t I try?’” Messac said. “He emailed me back right away saying, ‘Let’s set up a meeting.’”
Messac, now a resident in emergency medicine at Brown University, said that Fauci “made a lot of time” for him and “had a lot of patience” for his many questions, adding that he doesn’t think he could have written the thesis without Fauci’s insight given that the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was one of the leading architects of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Launched in 2003, PEPFAR is a federal initiative dedicated to combating the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. According to the State Department, the federal government has invested more than $85 billion in HIV/AIDS response through the effort, making PEPFAR “the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in history.”
Messac, who earned both his medical degree and a doctorate in history from University of Pennsylvania, said he wanted to know how PEPFAR originated under Bush, given “a lot of conservative Republicans had long opposed AIDS spending and foreign aid in general.”
The meeting, which took place at the National Institutes of Health headquarters, went well, by Messac's account, particularly because Fauci is "such an inviting, avuncular guy." But it was Fauci's response after the publication of his thesis that has had a lasting impression on him.
Messac said he emailed Fauci the thesis to thank him for the meeting, never imagining the renowned immunologist would actually read it, as only his mother and the committee grading the project had seen it at that point. Fauci not only read the paper, but he called it "magnificent" and asked Messac permission to cite his ideas with proper attribution in a follow-up email. Messac posted a copy of Fauci's response to social media Thursday in a now-viral tweet that has garnered more than 425,000 likes.
"13 years ago, I emailed Dr. Fauci out of the blue to ask if I might interview him for my undergrad thesis," Messac tweeted. "He invited me to his office, where he answered all my questions. When I sent him the thesis, HE READ THE WHOLE THING (see his overly effusive review below). Who does that?!"
"I continually learn, even from people like yourself ... who are much younger than I," Fauci wrote in the email. "If you do not mind, I would like to quote some of your ideas with proper attribution if the opportunity arises in my talks and interviews. I have often hinted at these concepts, but you have added scholarship to them, and so now I feel more comfortable with them."
Fauci also wished Messac good luck in his future "highly successful career" and instructed him to reach out to him should he be able to offer further assistance.
"I've carried it with me for a long time," Messac said of the email. "I ended up getting a Ph.D in history and an M.D. and I think I’ve carried it since. He talks about being a perpetual student and I obviously feel that same way because I’m still in training. I think it's a good message and one I’ve taken to heart and speaks to how to make a real difference in the world against long odds."
Messac's tweet comes as COVID-19 cases surge in the U.S. and the White House attempts to discredit Fauci, who had been a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force and a key communicator with the public until he was sidelined for deviating from President Donald Trump's public messaging about the pandemic. Trump maintains that the virus will simply "disappear," even as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations spike around the country.
Messac, who has been working with a number of coronavirus patients, said he didn't necessarily post the tweet in response to attacks on Fauci's credibility, but because he wanted to show people a "different side" of the public figure.
"For a lot of us in medicine, he’s just such a major voice. He edits one the major medical textbooks, he’s had thousands of publications and he’s fought some of the worst diseases we have," Messac said. "A lot of people in medicine trust him, so hearing his voice was very comforting during a very scary time and still is."
Yet it was also "gratifying" for Messac to watch a man he had long admired become a household name, participating in Instagram conversations with celebrities like NBA player Stephen Curry and even posing for the cover of InStyle magazine. As he treats coronavirus patients while grappling with the "uncertainty and dread" of knowing he could only do so much "because we don't yet have the therapies and tools we need," Messac finds solace in Fauci's updates about the unprecedented virus.
He said he decided to post the tweet because he recently published a book titled "No More to Spend: Neglect and the Construction of Scarcity in Malawi's History of Health Care," and in doing so, reflected on the people who'd helped him along the way, including Fauci. Messac said he's received responses from those who've known and worked with the scientist, including from one woman who claimed that Fauci saved a loved one's life from a fatal disease. Thousands of people who don't personally know Fauci have also found life lessons that resonate in the email, including the benefits of life-long learning and the importance of leaders uplifting others of lower rank, as evinced by the tweet's responses.
If there's one takeaway people gleam from Fauci's email, however, Messac hopes it's that people realize the importance of working together to fight a pandemic that has not only stripped people of their livelihoods, but of their lives.
"I really wish we were approaching this as a community and that we had a sense that we're all in this together, because we are. We have to be. It’s the only way we’re going to beat this thing," Messac said. "I know there's a lot of strife, anger, uncertainty and fear but I want people to see that we can only beat this if we beat it together."