Return to: U of M Home
Dr. Robert P. Hebbel is driven to discover how the biology of sickle disease works
by M.J. Pehl
It's the age-old question: what does the doctor do when the doctor gets sick? Dr. Robert P. Hebbel has been under the weather for a few weeks and it doesn't sit well with a fellow who's very busy and very driven. His answer? "Stay home and suffer just like everyone else," he says with a smile.
Back in his office high in the Phillips-Wangensteen Building, a large and colorful stuffed parrot hangs above the desk of one of the world's foremost scientists in the study of sickle cell disease. Dr. Hebbel holds the George Clark Professorship in the Department of Medicine and also is the Department's Vice-Chairman for Research. Not bad for a guy who began his academic career as a political science major.
Born and raised in the Twin Cities, Hebbel did his undergraduate work at Oberlin College in Ohio. Along the way, he switched from political science to biology. "I don't even know why!" he laughs. In the mid-seventies, he attended the University of Minnesota Medical School, and considered becoming a pediatrician and going into private practice. A summer job changed his mind. "As a medical student, we got paid research jobs," Hebbel says, "And I absolutely fell in love with it."
Since then, almost every research project he's been involved with has been related to sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that affects red blood cells. Red blood cells are normally round, but in sickle cell disease, they become a crescent shape which makes it difficult for them to pass through blood cells. Among other things, this can cause anemia, jaundice and gallstones. It can also cause lung tissue damage, stroke, and damage to the spleen, kidney and liver.
Hebbel describes sickle cell as "a disease with molecular origin and a disease of great historical interest." And as his work has continued, Dr. Hebbel has become interested in the problems of strokes in children with sickle cell disease and how the blood clotting system participates in the disease process.
Hebbel was attracted to the problem solving approach of internal medicine. ""I love the chase! I love using your wits to design an experiment to solve the problem," he says. "I love the "aha!" moment, finding out how something works in biology." But Hebbel will be the first to admit there was no "grand plan." In fact, his career aspirations as a kid included "cowboy and fireman" alongside "doctor."
"I followed my nose, and I did what was interesting," Hebbel says. "Fortunately, we were successful along the way." So much so that hematologists from around the world were surveyed in the late 90s about the most important scientific developments in sickle cell disease research in the past 25 years. At the top of the list was Dr. Hebbel's observation of abnormally adhesive sickle red cells, which he'd made in 1980.
Hebbel was named a Regents Professor in 2004. "I knew I'd been nominated, but I was very surprised to get the phone call," he recalls. The stipend that comes with the award didn't alter the focus of his work but it did give him some flexibility, considering that research budgets can be tight.
"I do things that are risky," he says. "It's nice to have funds available to invest in projects for unforeseen things, things one didn't account for in a budget."
President Bruininks says, "Dr. Robert Hebbel has had a key role in the establishment of the University of Minnesota's international reputation in the areas of minority health research, hematology and vascular biology."
Hebbel emphasizes that he's been fortunate to have an environment conducive to research development at the University, and that he's benefited from good advice. "John Eaton, my research mentor, he was instrumental in nurturing my curiosity and my ability to ask a good question and identify a good project to work on, the stuff worth doing," he says. And Hebbel says he continues to be amazed at the talent at the University, and he feels strongly that good role models and mentors are absolutely crucial to the next generation of research scientists. "In the old days," he says, "time was the most valuable commodity we had. Now everything is so high pressure, we are not incubating the next generation of scientists."
"I worry about it a lot," he reflects.
So Hebbel puts his money where his mouth is: he's been very committed to the graduate education and mentorship of minority students. He has founded and served as the director of several programs which provide mentorship opportunities and career guidance, such as the Internal Medicine Residencies Academic Pathway program, and a hematology training grant, which pays students additional stipends. And, he says, "I make sure we always provide a spot for minority medical students or undergraduates."
There is life beyond the lab, though. Although Hebbel grew up in the Twin Cities, one of his "favorite places on earth" is Jackson Hole, Wyoming. "I love the mountains, the whole area," he says with a glint in his eye. Hebbel also loves to write and flatly admits, "But I have no talent for fiction."
"But I love writing non-fiction. I love to write papers and grants, and being involved in the preparation of grants," he says. When asked what people might be surprised to know about him, he laughs and thinks. "I'm a lot more mellow that people think I am," he says at last.
"I've known people who conduct research in a calculated fashion, with a goal in the distance," Hebbel adds. "I've always just done what seems to be interesting to me in the moment."