Interview with Eleni Linos

Written by: Paul Basken
Published on: 27 Feb 2020

Eleni Linos, professor of dermatology at Stanford University

Eleni Linos is professor of dermatology at Stanford University, focusing on public health, cancer prevention and geriatric dermatology. She has medical degrees from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and completed her training at Harvard University and Stanford. She comes from a high-flying academic family, with three sisters working in higher education: Katerina, professor of law, and Elizabeth, assistant professor of public policy, both at the University of California, Berkeley; and Natalia, executive director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard.

Where and when were you born?
Rochester, Minnesota in 1980. I moved back to Greece as a baby and was raised in Athens.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in Greece as part of a big family. I was the second of five children. I grew up with three sisters and a brother who loved reading and were curious about maths and science. My parents valued education and service tremendously, and encouraged us to learn foreign languages and to travel. We grew up learning together, and I still feel my sisters are my academic team. I still rely on their advice for my science, writing, talks; and we often collaborate.

Are any of your siblings not academics?
Yes, we have a much younger brother – he just finished his MBA at Insead, in Paris.

Who is someone you admire?
I admire my mother, Athena Linos, tremendously. She grew up in a small rural town in Greece, the daughter of a local baker. She was a trailblazer for her time, to even be able to study science in school as a girl, let alone get into medical school at the top of her class. She worked to improve public health and to alleviate disease and poverty in Greece. Meanwhile, she raised five children, four of whom are now professors working on issues related to social good. I probably took her for granted until I had my own children and realised the challenges that working mothers face in order to pursue careers while also caring for their families.

Is there a predisposition towards academia in your family?
My mother definitely prioritised education, and she also really prioritised social giving. Having just reached the mandatory retirement age as a medical school professor at the University of Athens, she now runs a non-profit that helps to feed poor schoolchildren. That was just part of what she taught us, and role-modelled, because so much of her work was focused on public health and advocacy and helping others. I don’t think there’s anything kind of genetic or individual about it – I think it’s more about what you prioritise.

Tell us about your research.
I’ve been working with my team on using social media for skin cancer prevention. We leverage the tools of digital marketing and online advertising, working with video producers and Instagram influencers and YouTube stars. I’ve been helped by grants that include a new innovator award from the National Institutes of Health. My earlier work involved warning younger people about the dangers of tanning, and a new focus of my work is optimising the way we care for frail older adults with skin cancer. For that, we’re bringing together ideas of shared decision-making and patient-centred care with artificial intelligence technology, to try to figure out if there’s a better way for older adults to monitor their skin at home, and get them treatment that matches their values and preferences.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Very enthusiastic and disorganised.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t worry about whether you are studying the right course/topic/field at the start of your career. As long as you are learning, and enjoying what you are learning, the exact topic doesn’t matter too much. One of my mentors taught me that if you’re trying to climb to the top of a mountain, there are many good paths you can choose on your way up – just keep climbing.

What are the best things about your job?
Mentoring and teaching students is by far the best part of my job. There is nothing I love more than working with students to explain a difficult concept or advising them on the next steps in their careers. It is a joy to watch my students and mentees succeed.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
If you are not getting enough rejections, you’re not aiming high enough. Mistakes and failure are essential to moving forward. Failure and rejection never really stop feeling bad/frustrating/embarrassing, but I try to remind myself that there is usually a silver lining. Make sure you learn from your failures, and keep trying.

What do you do for fun?
I love watching stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedians can be brilliant at distilling serious messages into a few words that first make you laugh, and then make you think deeply about an important issue. I think we have a lot to learn from comedians about how to effectively communicate scientific messages.