Saturday, April 5, 2008 | While University of California, San Diego’s Dr. Ajit Varki concentrates his research on the tiniest fragments of life imaginable, he applies the results of his labor to much larger questions, like how, why, and when people became susceptible to certain diseases over the course of human evolution.
Early in his academic career Varki was committed to becoming a practicing doctor, but while in medical school he realized the value of pure scientific research, and made the decision to diversify his expertise. He is now a member of a rare breed of academics called physician-scientists, traditional doctors who also pursue scientific research.
Varki is a professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine, and co-director of UCSD’s Glycobiology Research and Training Center. To help the university address what he calls the “silent crisis” of the physician-scientist decline, Varki also serves as the associate dean for physician-scientist training at the university.
Varki sat down with us to discuss why the number of physician-scientists has decreased in recent years, what this decline means for the public, and how studying human evolution can improve our understanding of human disease.
You have a background in a variety of fields, ranging from physiology, medicine, biology, and biochemistry. This gives you a unique perspective on the state of medical education and general scientific research. The last time we met you mentioned that the number of individuals who are both physicians and scientists are on the decline. Why is that? And what are the implications of such a decline?
Historically, medicine has always been considered an art, a trade, and at some point, medicine had kind of a shotgun marriage with science in the 20th century. To cross between these two fields, you need people that have both brains: the brain of a scientist, and the brain of a doctor. I am an example of somebody like that. I am a physician-scientist.