Dr. Arjun Deb - Spotlight

Dr. Arjun Deb
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7 min read

Reversing or preventing scar tissue from forming after a heart attack remains one of the major challenges of cardiovascular medicine, but Arjun Deb, MD, director of the UCLA Cardiovascular Research Theme and professor of medicine and molecular, cell and developmental biology, is dedicated to untangling the mysteries of that process. As a physician-scientist, Dr. Deb both treats patients with advanced heart disease and works in his lab to find new therapies to enable the heart to heal better, reverse damage and extend or save the lives of patients.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST START TO THINK ABOUT SCIENCE?

My father was a physicist, so I grew up with science around me, and I always had an inclination to do something scientific. When I trained in medicine and was thinking about what I would do after my training, I realized that even with the best medical technologies, medicines and innovations, you still are sometimes limited in what you can do to treat a patient. That really stimulated my desire to do research to push the envelope and make discoveries that can translate to patient care.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIMENT?

My first experiments in medical school involved studying spinal-cord reflexes in amphibians. I remember those because often the frogs would jump out of the dish and hop around in the lab, and we had to run after them to catch them.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE GREATEST CHALLENGE IN YOUR WORK?

The greatest challenge is translating a discovery in the lab into a therapy that can actually help patients. The translational part of science — the bench-to-bedside part of science — is what I still struggle with.

WHERE DOES YOUR INSPIRATION COME FROM?

My inspiration comes from my direct experience in medicine — being presented with a difficult or incurable medical problem such that, no matter how good a diagnostician you are or how clever a therapeutic strategy you can come up with, you are not going solve it because the disease is going to win. Faced with situations like that, I am inspired to find new therapies. That problem, that struggle against the disease, is what drives me the most.

WHO IS YOUR SCIENCE HERO?

Growing up, I idolized the great physicists of the early 20th century who essentially shaped the way we think about life, reality and the universe. Einstein and Heisenberg stand out. In biology, I admire Francis Crick. I have read all his popular books; he is an absolute delight to read, and I think all students should read his writings. Peter Medawar, the father of organ transplantation, is also someone I have idolized, surely one of the wittiest scientists to ever live.

WHERE ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

In the lab, without a doubt. I take great pleasure in scientific pursuit and am happiest when investigating a scientific problem.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST “AHA!” MOMENT?

I can’t say that I’ve had one. The science writer Isaac Asimov famously said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science is not ‘eureka’ but ‘that’s funny or interesting.’” If I find something in the lab that really is interesting and can translate to alleviate human suffering, that would be an “aha!” moment for me.

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE YOUR FINEST ACHIEVEMENT?

Hopefully, it is still to come.

WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES IT TAKES TO BE A GREAT SCIENTIST?

I think what distinguishes a great scientist is an ability to ask the right question. When you ask the right question, you really don’t know if it’s great or not until you’ve worked your way through it and, hopefully, made a truly impactful discovery. If you ask a mediocre question, the solution or the conclusion cannot be a very exciting one. Great science involves taking significant risk, and it starts by asking the right question.

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST VIRTUE?

Being interested in man y questions at the same time.

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST FAULT?

That’s easy: I’m not patient.

WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO?

There is a verse from the Bhagavad Gita that, in Sanskrit, begins with the phrase, “Karmanye vadhikaraste.” The entire verse in translation means: “You have the right to work only but never to its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.” I take this to mean one cannot control the outcomes of one’s labor and so one should perform one’s duty without great expectations. It is something I largely live by. I focus on completing the work at the highest standard one is capable of and not worrying about outcomes. It is something I ask my postdocs and my kids to adopt, as well, as an approach to life — though my astute teenage daughter often uses the verse to her advantage by telling me “it is about the journey” when her grades drop.

WHAT DO YOU VALUE MOST IN YOUR COLLEAGUES AND YOUR STUDENTS?

In my colleagues, I most value the ability to engage in a very honest, scientific conversation. At UCLA, it is a real privilege to discuss what I’m working on or the problems I’m encountering with others whom I respect and admire and to hear back what they think, and to receive their ideas or maybe new ways to approach a question. We work on difficult physiological problems, but the collective scientific consciousness on campus often guides us closer to the solution. In my students, I value their ability to ask a question that really gets to the heart of the problem. We see that a lot with our students at UCLA, and it is a joy to work with them.

WHEN DO YOU NOT THINK ABOUT SCIENCE?

I’m an aficionado of classical music, and I’m a wine lover and a certified sommelier. When I’m having a glass of wine and listening to fine classical music, I don’t think about science.

IF NOT A SCIENTIST, WHAT WOULD YOU BE?

It is difficult for me to imagine a life outside medicine or science, but I like creating, and I love music, so perhaps a composer.

WHAT IS YOUR MOST TREASURED POSSESSION?

My vinyl collection and my turntable. I have hundreds of old classical vinyl records, many of which you cannot get anymore.

TO WHICH SUPERHERO DO YOU MOST RELATE?

Batman. Batman is the most interesting superhero from a scientific perspective. At least the “bat” part of Batman is from my perspective as someone who studies hearts. The normal heart rate of a bat is about 300 beats a minute, but in flight that can go up to 1,000 beats per minute, and when they are hibernating, it can go down to two beats per minute. And they cycle their heart rates to save calories and protect themselves from starvation — so their hearts are beating at 300 beats per minute, then drop down to 200 for maybe half a minute and then go back up to 300. That is amazing mindbody control for survival. So, Batman is my favorite superhero, without a doubt.

WHAT KEEPS YOU UP AT NIGHT?

Thinking about whether or not I can really translate what’s happening in my lab to directly helping patients.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST COMPULSIVE ABOUT?

When there is an interesting observation in the lab that perhaps is surprising or counterintuitive, I’m really compulsive about interrogating that observation from different angles and making sure that it is correct. It drives my postdocs crazy.

WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT IN YOUR DAY?

The “best moment” doesn’t happen every day, or maybe it doesn’t even happen in a number of weeks. But the “best moment” is when my postdocs tell me something they observed that comes as a complete surprise. I savor moments like that.

WHAT MUSIC DO YOU LISTEN TO WHILE YOU WORK?

Music is like wine; you don’t have the same wine every day, so you don’t listen to the same music every day. The great conductor Daniel Barenboim observed that you may have a large music collection, but over time you tend to come back to the same pieces, and they become your lifelong companions. So, in that regard, I would say Beethoven’s piano sonatas, his violin and cello sonatas have become my lifelong companions