Meet UNMC Scientist Laureate Howard Gendelman, M.D.

March 16, 2009

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Howard Gendelman, M.D.
UNMC Scientist Laureate Howard Gendelman, M.D., answers questions about his work, life and interests.

NOTE: This profile is the last in a series highlighting the 23 researchers who were named UNMC Distinguished Scientists, New Investigators and Scientist Laureate for 2008. Each of these researchers were profiled in UNMC Today leading up to today's ceremony to recognize theses scientists and their achievements. The ceremony will be held at 4 p.m. in the Durham Research Center Auditorium.

  • Name: Howard Gendelman, M.D.
  • Title: Larson Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, chairman of the department of pharmacology and experimental neuroscience, University of Nebraska Medical Center
  • Joined UNMC: 1993
  • Hometown: Philadelphia

Describe your research in laymen terms.

We are developing the means to prevent, reverse or slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases that include HIV-1 associated neurocognitive disorders and Parkinson's disease. This is being achieved in the laboratory through harnessing the body's own immune system to elicit brain repair by developing nanomedicines aimed at improving delivery of specific drugs to the nervous system, and by a thorough understanding of how cells talk, send signals and respond to their environment during brain disease.

What led you to pursue this area of research?

While my scientific curiosity began when I was a child, my desire to become a scientist evolved over the years. Truth be told, research for me was a process, not a destination, that began with a liberal arts education with intensive studies of literature, language, mathematics, science and world politics. This evolved to honestly wanting to be a physician in a very genuine want to help others, and subsequently then to educate others. It's about passion in what you do and about pursuing excellence even if sometimes you don't meet all your goals. I still remember working so hard to make all-state in track when I was 17 years old. The final championship race for the 800 meters was about to start and standing next to me was a 6-foot-8-inch giant who I know would take one stride to my ten. I went to my coach, whom I respected enormously, just to tell him there was no way I could win the race. He turned to me, smiled, then said, "he doesn't matter, just shoot for the stars and if you reach the moon it's OK too." I had the same feeling when I saw my first AIDS patient in New York City and as a resident physician in 1981. I remember as if it was today. He was gasping for breath and held my hand tightly. He said, "please doctor help me," and I said I would but I knew I couldn't -- at least not then -- but perhaps someday for somebody else I could.

How do you see your research contributing to science?

It is perhaps a dream that the work we are doing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center on immune repair in devastating diseases of the brain will someday help many people who suffer so much. It is my quest that I see this and other treatments we are working on to fruition in my lifetime.

Why did you become a scientist?

Curiosity and passion for one, the journey of life for two. However, at the end of the day, it is about doing what you love to do. Everyone who knows me or has worked with me understands that I honestly love medicine, have a passion in caring for others and enjoy clinical practice. I also love to read and think creatively. I have a passion to teach others, I am sensitive to others' needs and to my community, have an intense curiosity in pursuing the unknown and like to work with my hands. I ask you, is there another job that fills all of these needs?

What is your hope for the next generation of scientists?

I wish that others have the same opportunities that I have had in my life. I want each of our scientists be only limited by the scope and breadth of their dreams. As Walt Disney said, "If you can dream it you can do it."

Beyond grant funding, how do you measure success?

The true measure of success is inner happiness with one's lot in life. We all strive for this and sometimes it's the most elusive. Success is inside and knowing that whatever you do matters.

What would you tell a student interested in a research career?

Honestly, my relationship with students need be defined by its intensity and it's never limited to giving practical advice. I honestly don't tell students anything other than enjoy what you do and seek their dreams. I, most importantly, try to live my life in a way that speaks to the students. That is, perhaps, the strongest way I can communicate.

Do you have a hero/role model? If so, what do you admire most about this person?

I have many role models. First, I am a spiritual man and admire many biblical figures and one is Abraham. My admiration surrounds his intense compassion for his fellow man. But that is only one of my heroes. Indeed, I admire all those around me who pursue excellence. Those that maintain our buildings, offices, laboratories and bathrooms; those who fix what is broken; those who can make new things; and those who counsel and guide us. I admire what is inside the person and I admire passion in person and purpose. I admire those who may not like me but can teach me to be better. I was very lucky to have had a great mother who I couldn't have been more supportive. My wife, most notably, is the best of the best. All of these people are my heroes.

Tell us about your family and hobbies outside of the lab.

I have a beautiful wife of 30 years who has stood by me as my best friend and mentor. I have three fantastic children who I am very proud of and I have one very special grandchild who calls me her, Tzedee (Yiddish for Grandpa). I am the luckiest man in the world. I am also fiercely devoted to my community, my synagogue and my colleagues.

List three things few people know about you.

Honestly, I am not a very private man and there are few things people don't know about me. I care deeply about what I do and, perhaps, the most important thing in my life that I enjoy doing is helping others.