WHEN IRVING ZABIN, PH.D., WAS A YOUNG RESEARCH ASSOCIATE IN BICHEMISTRY AT UCLA IN 1951, he was asked to be a lecturer for the university’s nascent medical school, which had just enrolled its first class of students – 26 men and two women.
Dr. Zabin took the job, and he has worked for the school ever since. Over the next 60 years, he has seen the infant medical school, which initially employed 15 faculty members and held its first classes in the reception lounge of the old Religious Conference Building on Le Conte Avenue, evolve into an enormous complex that employs 2,500 faculty members and 1,400 residents and trains 750 medical students and 400 Ph.D. candidates at a time. It long ago moved out of borrowed space and today includes not only a state-of-the-art hospital, but also a large assortment of affiliated facilities that include community, county and VA hospitals, as well as community clinics and outpatient settings.
“The most impressive change is the great increase in size as well as the stature of UCLA ,” says Dr. Zabin, who, at 91 years of age, is now a professor emeritus and the assistant dean for academic affairs for the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA . “We did not have a very high reputation in the beginning because we were new and just starting. But the stature of the school built up slowly as our faculty became better known.”
A thoughtful man with piercing blue eyes, a subtle sense of humor and uncommon energy, Dr. Zabin now reviews promotions and appointments for the medical school’s basic-science faculty. He usually sports an open-collared shirt, though there was a time when he wouldn’t think of entering the dean’s office without a tie. Before he retired from teaching, at age 70, he built a significant career working in the laboratories of two different scientists who went on to receive the Nobel Prize.
A native of Chicago who worked on meteorology and weather prediction for the Air Transport Command during World War II , Dr. Zabin studied biochemistry at the University of Chicago. There, he earned his doctorate under the tutelage of Konrad Bloch. Ph.D., a young professor who, in 1964, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on how cholesterol is formed in the body.
In 1950, Dr. Zabin secured his first postdoctoral position at UCLA as a research associate in what was then called the Department of Physiological Chemistry (now known as the Department of Biological Chemistry). Because the medical school and hospital buildings were still under construction, Dr. Zabin conducted his studies on the biosynthesis of lipids in a laboratory set up inside a Quonset hut.
“In those days, every member of the faculty was assigned a student or two to mentor,” says Dr. Zabin. “I remember several of those medical students who eventually became members of our faculty.”
By the time the school’s inaugural class graduated, in 1955, and the medical complex opened its doors in July of that year, the number of faculty had nearly tripled, to 43, and Dr. Zabin was an assistant professor on his way to climbing the ranks to full professor.
DR. ZABIN'S CAREER FOURISHED when he took a sabbatical leave at the Pasteur Institute in Paris to work on clarifying gene-protein relationships in bacteria – work that contributed to the discoveries of French biochemists Jacques Minod and François Jacob, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965. When he returned to UCLA , he worked on molecular biology in bacterial genetics and protein chemistry. His group determined the primary structure of betagalactosidase, the largest protein to be characterized at the time.
As medical science advanced, so did the medical school’s curriculum, Dr. Zabin says. “There now is much more clinical relevance right in the beginning,” Dr. Zabin says. “Before, students were exposed to biochemistry concepts, which are important in medicine, but it was done in the abstract. Now biochemistry is much more directly related to medical problems and the practice of medicine.”
When he is not on campus fulfilling his administrative responsibilities, Dr. Zabin, a great-grandfather of four, plays violin for a chamber-music ensemble and enjoys movies, concerts and theater with his wife, to whom he has been married for 69 years.
But in spite of his full days, he still resists the idea of leaving UCLA , where he has spent two-thirds of his long life.
“I’ve been married to the medical school,” Dr. Zabin says. “It’s been a tremendously important part of my life, and I’m personally pleased and proud to still be a part of it.” – Kim Kowsky