Spotlight: Dr. Ketema Paul
Steps Into the U Magazine Spotlight
Ketema Paul, PhD, knows a thing or two about getting a good night’s sleep. A professor of integrative biology and physiology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences in the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, Dr. Paul studies the interactions of circadian rhythms — the biological clock — and the biological regulatory mechanisms that govern the sleep-wake cycle. His research aspires to help improve therapies to treat sleep disorders.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST START TO THINK ABOUT SCIENCE?
My cousin had a chemistry set and a microscope, and I thought that was the coolest thing. I must have been around 7 or 8 years old, and I was hooked. I pestered my parents to buy me a chemistry set. I was unrelenting.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE GREATEST CHALLENGE IN YOUR WORK?
It is taking advantage of all the new ways that are available now to communicate. I was trained to do an experiment, write a peer-reviewed paper and publish it. But these days, there are so many creative and exciting ways to communicate what you’ve found — video, podcasts and now virtual reality. I’m still kind of old-school; I can’t keep up with it all. Those scientists who are learning how to take advantage of all of these new multimedia tools are getting a lot more valuable information out to the public.
WHERE DOES YOUR INSPIRATION COME FROM?
There were a lot of challenges growing up as a teenager in Washington, DC, and many of the guys I grew up with were really gifted, but they didn’t get opportunities for those gifts to serve them. I watched a generation of young people, my peers, fall victim to circumstances, and many of them aren’t around anymore. Their struggles inspire me. I’ve always felt that I got lucky. I’m here for a reason. Every day for me is like an opportunity to try to do something great, because a lot of the guys I knew didn’t get a chance. Those guys inspire me more than anyone.
WHO IS YOUR SCIENCE HERO?
A legendary scientist, Ernest Everett Just. He was a pioneering African American cytologist and instructor at Howard University’s biology department — a legend and a mega-force in science. There’s a biography of him, Black Apollo of Science, and I credit that book with setting me on a path to be successful in science. For an African American man in the early 20th century, with the challenges and obstacles he had to overcome every day to do something he loved, to be so successful in science, it is incredible.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST “A-HA!” MOMENT?
In my third year at Howard, I isolated a pigment from a firefly eye. My advisor had identified the pigment, and he had measured its spectral range in the firefly, but he never isolated it from the firefly. I was able to actually take it out of the firefly eye. I thought it was because I was so great, but in reality, I think it was because I’m colorblind and was able to see the pigment on the background. The revelation in that moment was that this is something I could really do, that I could be a scientist.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE YOUR FINEST ACHIEVEMENT?
I don’t know that I’ve had a “finest achievement” yet. I tend to think of life as a series of moments, and I try to appreciate every moment as it comes. Whatever I’m doing right now, whatever that now is, I probably see that as my finest achievement.
WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES OF A GREAT SCIENTIST?
The greatest scientists are the ones who always know the best questions to ask. Instinctively or through years of doing the work, they are able to quickly identify what are the most important questions. That is the pinnacle of what makes a great scientist.
WHAT CHARACTERISTIC MOST DEFINES YOU?
Persistence. I’m always going to show up. I’m never going to quit.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST VIRTUE?
Luck. I’ve just had an enormous amount of it in my life and in my career. My circumstances coming up, there’s no reason why I didn’t meet the same fate as some of my friends. It was just luck. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. But my mistakes have always had a way of pushing me forward, so I can only imagine it has been luck.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST FAULT?
That changes over time. I tend to always want to work on what I consider to be my faults, so that means once that one is no longer a fault, something else becomes my biggest fault. Right now, I think my biggest fault is saying yes to too many things and over-committing myself.
WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO?
Embrace failure, don’t fear it. That doesn’t mean try to fail, but when you do, learn from it.
WHAT DO YOU VALUE MOST IN YOUR COLLEAGUES AND STUDENTS?
Honesty. I have to have it. I try to avoid people who tell me things they think I want to hear. I want to surround myself with the people who are not afraid to be straight-up honest with me, who will say it like it is.
WHOM DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?
My dad. My mom passed when I was 10, and he was a single father with all boys, bringing them up in what was not the best neighborhood. With everything going on around him, he was still able to build a successful career and to raise us, and we are all doing well.
IF NOT A SCIENTIST, WHAT WOULD YOU BE?
A DJ or a musician. I don’t know how talented I would be as a musician, but I know I could be a DJ because I used to do that. I could be a DJ or a music producer — maybe half-and-half, a producer working in the studio and a DJ who gets to be out in front of an audience.
WHAT IS YOUR MOST-TREASURED POSSESSION?
Keeping with the theme of being in the moment, it is probably the coffee cup in front of me right now, because I am really enjoying this coffee. At the end of the day, it will probably be my bike as I ride home on this beautiful day. Tomorrow it will be something completely different.
TO WHICH SUPERHERO DO YOU MOST RELATE?
Cyborg from the Teen Titans. That’s weird because I’ve never liked DC Comics; I’ve always been a Marvel fan. But that Cyborg character — he is a fusion of electronics and biological tissue — inspired me to think about neuroscience.
WHAT KEEPS YOU UP AT NIGHT?
Absolutely nothing. I would like to say it’s because I’m a sleep scientist, but people who have known me since I was a baby will tell you that I’ve never had a problem sleeping. I don’t let anything get in the way of sleeping.
HOW DO YOU WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD?
I don’t have any kind of lofty ambitions. I think that if I can give just one more thing back to the world than I took from it, that would make me happy.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF HAPPINESS?
Spending time with the people that I love.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF MISERY?
Living inside your head, being so preoccupied with your thoughts that you miss everything that’s happening around you.
WHAT MUSIC DO YOU LISTEN TO WHILE YOU WORK?
I listen to jazz-funk fusion more than anything. It used to be straight-ahead jazz, but I’ve become such a big fan of that that I can’t listen to straight jazz when I’m working any more. I find myself getting lost in the individual improvisations and I wouldn’t be able to get any work done. So, now it is mostly jazz-funk fusion.