What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
My work focuses on cardiovascular stem cell biology. We explore fundamental mechanisms of differentiation, model cardiac diseases using hiPSCs, and develop cellular therapies to promote heart regeneration. We are currently hot on the trail of mechanisms to increase maturation of pluripotent stem cell derivatives. I am fortunate to have many rewarding aspects of my job, but I particularly enjoy mentoring students, fellows, and junior faculty.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
Total serendipity! I entered medical school intending to become a surgeon. I loved science theory, but my undergraduate lab courses were so boring that I could never imagine myself as a professional scientist. Then I did a year of research while in medical school and found out how exciting research was when there is real discovery driving it. I was hooked after that, so I changed directions and became a pathologist for my clinical work and emphasized research. I got into stem cell/regeneration in the mid-1990s as an assistant professor, trying to reprogram with transcription factors and doing cell therapy with primary cells. Once human ESCs were discovered, we pivoted to them and haven’t looked back since.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Right now I am really excited about our upcoming plans for clinical trials of human heart regeneration. We are shooting for doing our first patients in 2020, after more than 20 years of preclinical work. Exciting and somewhat nerve-wracking!
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Let the science lead you, and never try to force data to fit a preconceived hypothesis. Hypotheses are, to me, just an excuse to do a cool experiment. There is no shame whatsoever in having an incorrect hypothesis. If you follow your data, you will end up on the right side of things.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
Gordon Keller and Loren Field have had big influences on me. Gordon because of his wizardry in controlling stem cell differentiation, and Loren because of his vision for cardiomyocyte turnover in the heart. Jamie Thomson and Shinya Yamanaka, because of their demi-god status in the field, also have been hugely influential.
How do you spend your free time?
I love the outdoors, which is part of what has kept me in the Pacific Northwest all these years. I like to camp, hike, ride my bike, ski, listen to live music and explore the Northwest microbrew scene with my buddies. I spend a lot of time with my wife, Rene, my two daughters, Marit and Jessie, and my two dogs.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I really like fireworks. I come from a family with a bit of a pyromania streak.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
I was a relative latecomer to the ISSCR, already having well established ties to several professional cardiovascular and pathology societies when the Society was founded. When I came to my first ISSCR meeting, I felt like I had found my people. It is a group of kindred spirits who love science, want to develop new medicines, and who embrace entrepreneurship.