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The Region

Scientist Seeks the Cause of Diseases

Research: Ian Lipkin and his team found the sometimes-deadly West Nile virus. He's moving from UC Irvine to Columbia, where resources are greater.

September 03, 2001|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Ian Lipkin pulls out a printout from an Internet listserv where doctors around the world report on infections that have them mystified.

"These things come out all day long," said Lipkin, head of UC Irvine's Emerging Diseases Laboratory. "No one has any idea how to deal with [them]."

Lipkin, who founded the lab at UCI in 1990, is an explorer who, along with other researchers, hunts for unidentified microbes, trying to figure out which illnesses are caused by which viruses.

It was Lipkin who, in 1999, identified West Nile virus, previously unknown in the United States, as the cause of the encephalitis outbreak that killed seven people in the New York City area. The discovery catapulted the UCI physician and professor of neurobiology into the scientific spotlight and sent him to Japan, Germany, France, Italy and across the United States, attending conferences and collaborating with other researchers.

The West Nile discovery was the kind of research Lipkin thrives on, delving into the mysterious world of disease and turning up a cause. Working at the frontier of molecular biology, he seeks microbes he believes are responsible for a number of chronic diseases, including multiple sclerosis, autism, Alzheimer's and depression.

But in his UCI office, a weathered leather doctor's bag sits on a bookshelf and cardboard boxes are stacked in the corner, boxes he is packing to move to Columbia University. There, he will join the faculty of the Mailman School of Public Health, drawn by the more extensive facilities the Ivy League school can offer and the closeness of premier researchers in New York.

"He's a star," said Allan Rosenfield, dean of the Mailman School. "His work on West Nile is just one indication of the high caliber of work he's engaged in."

Already Lipkin is commuting between the coasts, spending most weekends in the Upper West Side brownstone where his girlfriend and their two children have moved from their home in Laguna Beach.

He talks excitedly about going to Lincoln Center for the Mostly Mozart Festival and the greater scientific collaborations available in New York.

"He loves to travel," said David Relman, a friend and professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Stanford University. "He likes the thrill of seeing or doing something for the first time. [He's] a true kind of experimentalist in terms of life experiences."

Research Facilities Tempt Star Academics

Top academics often are tempted by offers of more money and better research facilities. Brian Mahy, another friend and a senior scientist at the National Center for Infectious Disease, said the professor felt he wasn't receiving the kind of institutional support he needed at UCI, including a secretary.

"He had expressed to me two or three years ago he was feeling itchy and looking at a few other possibilities," Mahy said.

For Lipkin's use, Columbia is converting two floors of a 1926 building on its Health Sciences campus, a total of 6,300 square feet. From his 19th-floor window, Lipkin will look out on the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge.

"It's a major statement of Columbia's support for his work and research," said Catherine Murray, the Mailman school's associate dean for external affairs.

Thomas Cesario, dean of the UCI College of Medicine, said the university tried hard to keep Lipkin. "I think it's a sign of our growth that people like Ian get offers," he said.

Cesario said medical schools are being squeezed financially. "I don't know what was offered in New York, but these are not easy times in academic medicine," he said.

A Reputation for Cutting-Edge Work

Lipkin is an attractive recruit for any university. At 48, he's relatively young, with a reputation for cutting-edge research. He's a compulsive worker, who often works through the weekends.

"He calls me up at all hours of the day and night, and is extremely dedicated to his subject," Relman said.

Lipkin grew up in Chicago, the son of a psychiatrist. He received his bachelor's degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, becoming one of the first men to spend four years at what had been a women's school.

When Lipkin entered Sarah Lawrence, he was interested in mythology, philosophy and cultural anthropology and curious about other parts of the world. But his organic chemistry professor made the subject come so alive that Lipkin turned to science. Still, at that time, Sarah Lawrence's only degree was a bachelor's in liberal arts.

When the 1974 graduate delivered the commencement speech to Sarah Lawrence's class of 2000, he told them, "Many of the concepts I now use daily in molecular biology and neuroscience are rooted in lessons learned" from his liberal arts studies.

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