Broadcasting The Breakthroughs: An Interview with Dr. Max Gomez

Dr. Max Gomez, better known to viewers as “Dr. Max,” the medical correspondent on WCBS-TV in New York, has enjoyed a long and prolific career as a science educator. Before rejoining CBS 11 years ago, he was the medical reporter/health editor at WNBC-TV in New York. He first worked at WCBS from 1994 to 1997, before that he was the health and science editor for KYWTV in Philadelphia and the health and science reporter/editor for New York’s WNEW-TV. In his career, Gomez has won seven New York Emmy Awards and two Philadelphia Emmy Awards. Before he entered the world of journalism, he graduated cum laude from Princeton University and earned a Ph.D. from Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina. He was also a National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral fellow at New York’s Rockefeller University.

Among his proudest accomplishments is an award for Excellence in a Time of Crisis given by the New York City Department of Health for his coverage following the 9/11 attacks. Brain World recently had the opportunity to speak with Gomez about his work and his longtime passion for scientific and medical research, as well as his new book, “Cells Are the New Cure: The Cutting-Edge Medical Breakthroughs That Are Transforming Our Health,” co-written with Robin Smith. He took a break from a busy newsroom to answer our questions.

Brain World: How and why did you become interested in journalism?

Max Gomez: You know, it’s funny — when I was an undergraduate at Princeton, I had friends who said I had a great voice for radio, that I should do radio, so I looked into the campus radio station there that was all volunteer — WPRB-FM and it looked like a lot of fun so I did some music, some DJ stuff, but I was always interested in news, so I became the news director there for a couple of years then forgot about it, didn’t think I’d pursue it as a career. So I started grad school, and it was my professor who asked me “Have you ever thought about going into radio?” I thought he was pulling my leg at first — that I wouldn’t make it in science, maybe.

So I went on, got my Ph.D. from Wake Forest School of Medicine, which back then was called the Bowman Gray School of Medicine — they changed the name because Gray was the former president of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and they figured maybe that’s not the right image for a medical school. I came back up here, studied at Rockefeller University, and when I had about a year left on my grant, I realized I was running out of school to go to and realized it might not be what I really wanted to do.

It was an old classmate that said to me, you know you like science and you did radio and journalism in college, why don’t you combine the two and do it all over again? It was the old boy network back in those days. I had to go and find a friend of a friend of a friend. Eventually, I was introduced to someone by the name of Ken Gilmore, the editor-in-chief of Popular Science magazine at the time and he was also dabbling and doing some work with television Channel 5 in New York, which back then was MetroMedia. He was, as he put it, “busier than a one-armed paperhanger.” They were looking to expand their coverage, and he didn’t have enough time, he was way too busy. They had already tried some general assignment reporters, and it didn’t work out. So I pitched another idea to their news director — let’s take a scientist and teach them “television” rather than do it the other way around.

BW: So why did you pursue medicine? Is it because your father was a doctor?

MG: Yeah, he was a doctor, an OB-GYN. He delivered somewhere around 4,000 babies in Miami. So I was always interested in that from the beginning. I would grab frogs from the upper canal in North Miami where we lived when I was very young and dissect them on the sidewalk I was never all that squeamish about it. I was always interested in how stuff worked, especially in biology and the body. So part of it came from my father and the rest came from, I don’t know, something that was probably inside me anyway. Biology always seemed to come naturally to me — it always made more sense than physics, I guess, which was a little counterintuitive for me.

BW: So what do you feel is the most important scientific discovery of the last decade that has informed most of your work?

MG: Oh, man — that’s like asking who’s your favorite child. I’m going to think about that for a minute here, but as a preface to that I was going to say, as I told you I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and now when I give talks and meet with people at different places, I say, and all the scientists and researchers that I talk to agree that more has happened in science and medicine and research in the last five, six, seven years than probably in the previous 30. It’s just so amazing the process and speed of discovery that all of these things are reaching, a what do you call it “tipping point,” a “critical mass,” or whatever — so all the different methods and techniques are finally coming together.

BW: Well, just look at all the advances in neuroscience, and how we’re finally beginning to understand how the brain really works.

MG: Absolutely. When I started in neuroscience, back in grad school, we knew some basic neural anatomy, some basic circuitry in the wiring of the brain perhaps, but now we’re starting to learn neurochemistry, neurotransmitters. What we’re learning now with scanning technology, fMRIs, MRIs, the connectome in the brain — it’s incredible what we’re just finding out. From my background, where I’m coming from, I always believed, and it’s starting to bear out as you alluded to, things like mental illness and affective disorders, certainly things like schizophrenia, but I believe also things like autism, depression, and so forth had to have a mechanistic and biological basis that we just didn’t have enough technology to sort that all out and some of that now is finally starting to bear fruit.

We can actually figure out how and why what were considered mental health issues where we didn’t know what was going on — are being traced to neurochemistry and neuronal biology. We didn’t think it could be, but it’s looking more and more like it is. I think that’s really exciting. I don’t know if I’d call it the biggest revelation or discovery in research in the last decade. I think partly (and maybe it’s self-serving), partly because of my interest in stem cells — adult stem cells and so-called cogenitor cells in the body. We looked at embryonic stem cells and thought that was it, but now we realize that we have stem cells all over and we might be able to take these cells and put them to use — to heal — I think is a huge discovery.

Clearly, the Human Genome Project was a major undertaking — not really a discovery but applying lots and lots of technological power to sequence a genome. That’s starting to pay off, and now we can edit a genome. Tune it to our own ends — hopefully for good rather than trying to generate superbabies. The immune system immunotherapy — it’s just so amazing what we’re finding out. When I took biology back in grad school, it was B-cells, T-cells — one makes antibodies; one kills directly. Now we learn it’s an incredibly complex, incredibly balanced system that we’re starting to turn it to our own ends to battle everything from infections to cancer. So there’s so much to pick from to choose one (laughs).

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