Team research award-winner Irena Levitan
Team Research Award, shared with Shane Phillips
Professor of medicine, pharmacology and bioengineering
Years at UIC:
I came to the UIC in 2005 from the University of Pennsylvania and was immediately very impressed by the high quality of research and particularly by the highly collaborative environment that drives the most innovative research.
What are your research interests?
My group studies how pathological levels of cholesterol and its oxidized forms that are highly proatherogenic affect the properties of the inner lining of the blood vessels, which is the key early stage of inflammation and atherosclerosis development. Our goal is “to catch and reverse the disease” much earlier than any clinical manifestations occur. To achieve this goal, we use a multidisciplinary multiscale approach going from atomistic interactions between the sterol molecules and the membranes to studying more global biophysical properties of the arteries, to designing and testing appropriate animal models, to extending our studies to human patients. Our collaboration with Shane is an absolute key to developing this multidisciplinary project.
How did you become interested in these topics?
Every question is interesting when you go sufficiently in depth. I am particularly interested in vascular biology because impairment of the vascular function is central almost to all diseases.
What do you teach?
I teach mostly graduate students and postdoctoral fellows by advising them in developing their projects. The main part of the teaching is to help the new generation of scientists to develop critical thinking. A few years ago, I organized a series of workshops for the Biophysical society teaching committee on Innovations and Controversies, where we were discussing “what we think we know, what we really know, and what is controversial” — this reflects my teaching philosophy. I also teach a seminar for Honors College “Bioengineering in Medicine” using the same principles. Our Honors students are amazing — they are fully up to the task.
How do you balance teaching and research?
I don’t believe teaching and research are separate. I think they are part of the same process.
What’s your advice to students who want to focus their future careers on research?
Ask questions, never be shy to question what seems to be known or what your professor tells you. The more questions you ask, the more fun it gets.