Thinking Big: Innovation takes center stage at event

Dr. Deborah Clegg speaks to the crowd attending UT Southwestern’s ‘Thinking Big’ event, which also included talks from faculty members (from front right) Dr. Helen Hobbs, Dr. James Amatruda, Dr. Benjamin Levine, and Dr. Alex Eastman.
Dr. Deborah Clegg speaks to the crowd attending UT Southwestern’s ‘Thinking Big’ event, which also included talks from faculty members (from front right) Dr. Helen Hobbs, Dr. James Amatruda, Dr. Benjamin Levine, and Dr. Alex Eastman.

By Alex Lyda

It’s the sort of advice one usually hears at the end of some multiyear accomplishment, like the awarding of an undergraduate degree or the completion of arduous training: “Don’t be afraid to test the boundaries and try new things,” or “Be bold, and your path will reveal itself.”

But at UT Southwestern Medical Center, the fact that these words are spoken to first-year students before they even contemplate their residencies or postdoctoral work turns platitudes into real calls to action: Your time at UT Southwestern is a gift, and the opportunities are boundless.

At the second annual “Thinking Big” event on Feb. 16, a packed Eugene McDermott Plaza lecture hall featured five of UT Southwestern’s most fascinating thinkers and doers sharing some of their most profound thoughts, experiences, and ideas about their individual passions in 12 minutes apiece. 

Event founder Gaurab Chakrabarti, a third-year student in the Medical Scientist Training Program, said this year’s lineup showcased the breadth of lifesaving, evidence-based medicine taking place at UT Southwestern.

“The intellectual and occasionally idiosyncratic pursuits of our diverse faculty members are interesting in their own right, but we decided to style this day after the wildly popular TED Talks, so as to ignite and spread ideas and knowledge across disciplines,” Mr. Chakrabarti said.

Dr. Benjamin Levine, Professor of Internal Medicine and Medical Director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a joint collaboration between UTSW and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, gave the headline talk on “Science as Exploration: Perspectives of a Space Cardiologist,” presenting the audience with this compelling fact and others about sedentary lifestyles: Three weeks of bed rest is harder on your heart than 30 years of aging.

His unique background in space medicine includes serving as co-investigator on four Spacelab missions and as the principal investigator of a large cardiovascular experiment on the International Space Station.

Dr. James Amatruda, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, and Molecular Biology, presented “Fishing for a Cure: The Challenge of Childhood Cancer.” Dr. Amatruda offered keen insights about the genetics of zebra fish, which have an internal anatomy similar in ways to humans. This makes them model organisms for studying vertebrate biology, he said.

As a pediatric oncologist and basic scientist, Dr. Amatruda has devoted his career to understanding the genetic causes of childhood cancers. His laboratory focuses on germ cell tumors, Wilms’ tumor, and Ewing’s sarcoma, using a combination of human genomics and zebra fish genetic models.  

Dr. Deborah Clegg, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Clinical Nutrition, talked about challenging common assumptions in “From Bedside to Bench: Thinking Outside the Wheaties Box.” Dr. Clegg, an acclaimed pioneer in nutritional and metabolic research, began her career in the U.S. Army, where she trained future dietitians and formulated Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) for deployed soldiers.

Dr. Alex Eastman, Assistant Professor of Surgery, offered commentary on “Best Medicine, Worst Places: The Dallas Experience.” As Lieutenant and Deputy Medical Director for the Dallas Police Department, Dr. Eastman is highly trained at responding to critical incidents beyond the traditional health care setting. 

Dr. Eastman performed what he called the world’s first throat surgery by rifle-light when a fellow Dallas Police officer was shot in the neck at the scene of a nighttime crime. Getting to his wounded colleague within the “golden hour” when emergency care is so critical made the difference between life and death.

Dr. Helen Hobbs, Director of the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development, Professor of Internal Medicine and Molecular Genetics, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, spoke about “Science, Serendipity, and the Single Degree,” which traced her trajectory from physician to trailblazing research scientist. Her research in identifying the genes that influence cholesterol levels and in exploring their function is laying the groundwork for the development of new cholesterol-lowering drugs. 

She credits her early mentor, Dr. Donald Seldin, Professor of Internal Medicine, for recognizing the research scientist she would become and arranging for her to work as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of two well-established UT Southwestern investigators – Dr. Michael Brown, Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease, and Dr. Joseph Goldstein, Chair of Molecular Genetics. The pair later won a Nobel Prize for their discoveries concerning the regulation of cholesterol metabolism.

In comments summing up the theme of the event, Dr. Eastman said the course of discovery has its roots in the past.

“ ‘The future of medicine, today,’ is not just a slogan. You should treat this as a time to think and act on big thoughts,” he said.

Dr. Amatruda holds the Nearburg Family Professorship in Pediatric Oncology Research and is a Horchow Family Scholar in Pediatrics.

Dr. Brown holds The W.A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine, and is a Regental Professor.

Dr. Goldstein holds the Julie and Louis A. Beecherl, Jr. Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine, and is a Regental Professor.

Dr. Hobbs holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished Chair for the Study of Human Growth and Development, the Philip O'Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Chair in Developmental Biology, and the 1995 Dallas Heart Ball Chair in Cardiology Research.

Dr. Levine holds the Distinguished Professorship in Exercise Sciences.

Dr. Seldin holds the William Buchanan Chair in Internal Medicine and is a UT System Professor in Internal Medicine.