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My Journey to UK and How My Research Focus Has Developed
by Ye Chen-Izu

I can trace my journey to UK back to my earliest days as a Ph.D. student. I enrolled into the biophysics department at the State University of New York (SUNY), received a graduate scholarship, and started working towards a Ph.D. degree in biophysics.

My mentor was Dr. Fredrick Sachs, a legendary biophysicist who is among the pioneers of 'single channel study' and is always at the forefront of inventing new technology in that field. I studied cellular electrophysiology under Sachs's direction and, as my dissertation project, discovered that the venom from a tarantula could block stretch-activated channels, a class of ion channels that can sense mechanical force such as the touch sensation on our skin and the stretching of muscle during heartbeat. (Under the continuing efforts of Sachs's group, the venom toxin has now been purified and synthesized and shown effective in treating diverse disorders including cardiac arrhythmia and muscular dystrophy in animal models.)

Adding to the excitement of this research focus was my meeting of Leighton Izu in the biophysics department. Leighton was known as the math wiz to whom students and professors often went for help with math problems. I clearly remember the first time I felt attracted to him. It was a summer afternoon, and several of us were discussing ions and how they crossed cell membranes. Leighton drew a "squared" cell on the blackboard. Well, cells are not square; they are round, rod shaped or ameba-shaped. But Leighton drew a square cell with ion channels in the cell membrane. While ignoring the unimportant details, he focused on the essential features of ion transport machinery. I knew at that moment that this guy could see through the surface of things to capture the essence. I fell in love with him as time went by, and, after two years, married him. Since then, Leighton has been my inspiration and admiration in science and in life.

After obtaining Ph.D. degrees in SUNY at Buffalo, Leighton and I moved to Baltimore for post-doctoral training in May 1995. By then, we both had decided to center our research on cardiac muscle physiology and heart diseases. While Leighton joined Dr. William Balke's group in the Division of Cardiology at University of Maryland, I entered into the Lab of Cardiovascular Sciences at National Institute on Aging, NIH. After completing four years of staff fellowship in NIH, I decided to join force with Leighton to study heart disease. Leighton focuses on developing a supercomputer model to simulate the dynamics of cardiac muscle, and I conduct experiments on cardiac cells to obtain realistic measurements for the model and to verify the simulation results in the real heart.

A great challenge in understanding and treating heart disease comes from the dynamic nature of the heart. As the engine of life, the human heart beats one billion times in about 30 years. The rhythmic beating of the heart requires flawlessly coordinated motion of the four chambers—two ventricles and two atria—and the cardiac muscle is controlled by three sub-systems—electrical excitation, Ca2+ signaling, and muscle contraction systems that each has its own dynamics and couples with the others. In order to understand the heart function and to predict heart diseases such as arrhythmia and heart failure, it is necessary to integrate all the control components into a quantitative model (super-computer simulation of Virtue Heart). To make an analogy, predicting cardiac arrhythmia or sudden cardiac death is like weather forecast: a quantitative model is needed to take into account ocean currents, global climate, and so forth.

It is in developing a model for the dynamic heart that Leighton and I find our niche where we can utilize our training in math and physics to tackle heart disease. As matter of fact, one of our missions in coming to UK is to develop programs to attract student and faculty talents from math, physics, engineering, and computer science to join force with physiologists and physicians to tackle biomedical problems.

Coming to UK presents a great opportunity to establish and expand our research. Dr. Balke, being a physician scientist, understands the complexity of heart disease and the comprehensive research it requires to solve problems of the heart. He has been instrumental in recruiting people of complementary expertise to conduct research at all levels from whole body cardiovascular function to cellular disorder to molecular mechanisms. I'm convinced that such comprehensive efforts are necessary and will be fruitful in helping us understand heart diseases and to develop effective treatments.

During my visits to UK I was deeply impressed by the leadership, the faculty and the staff here. I met with Dr. Perman, the dean of the Medical College, Dr. de Beer, the chair of the Department of Medicine, and Dr. Reid, the Chair of the Department of Physiology. I was energized by their vision for UK biomedical research, their strong leadership, and their support for our new research group. I am very grateful to them for sharing with me their excellent work and their love for Lexington, Kentucky. I was convinced, and I'm looking forward to making Lexington my home.