Time out with T.O. - A scientific wonder

by Tom O'Connor, UNMC public relations | February 01, 2019

Image with caption: Irving Zucker, Ph.D.

Irving Zucker, Ph.D.

As he approaches his 47th anniversary at UNMC, Irving Zucker, Ph.D., is ready for the next chapter.

Reception set for Feb. 7

A reception honoring Dr. Zucker will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 7 in The Restaurant on the first floor of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.

Remarks will be made at 5:30 p.m. Speakers will include: Martin Frank, Ph.D., past executive director of the American Physiological Society; Bradley Britigan, M.D., dean of the UNMC College of Medicine; and Merry Lindsey, Ph.D, the new chair of the UNMC Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology.

Physiology is the study of the function of body parts and the body as a whole.

At age 76, the man who has chaired the Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology for the past 30 years has certainly reached a point where retirement would be in order.

But, the "R" word doesn't have a place in his vocabulary.

"I get scared thinking about what I'd do in retirement," Dr. Zucker said. "I plan to work until I run out of funding or my health fails. I may cut back on my own research and work more with junior faculty."

He has moved down the hall from his fifth floor office in the Durham Research Center and eagerly awaits the arrival of Merry Lindsey, Ph.D., the new department chair who begins Feb. 1.

"It was time," he said, "I believe getting a new chair will revitalize the department and provide a new vision. A new person can get things done that may not have been possible with a longstanding chair."

What others are saying

"Irv Zucker is an international leader in cardiac physiology from Da' Bronx. And a very strong leader of his department. He was a good friend to me and many others. He asked me the toughest questions when I appeared before the faculty forum during my initial interviews. He was always direct without b.s. I supported him whenever he needed my help in building a strong research program, which he funded with an NIH program project grant. He was so good that I allocated an entire floor of the DRC to his department, as he experienced great frustration in Poynter Hall. The lab always shook when the trucks came down 42nd St. effecting his experiments. Each time he would come up to complain. He'd even buy better balances to help, but to no avail. Irv was so highly thought of by his peers that they appointed him the manager of the DRC.

"As with my other chairs who are stepping down, it will take years to recruit another transformational department chair like Irv."
-Harold M. Maurer, M.D., chancellor emeritus

"For decades, Irv Zucker has been the epitome of what we look for in leaders in the basic sciences at UNMC. In addition to be an internationally recognized leader in his field of cardiovascular research, Irv has been a role model, mentor, and advocate for his faculty. Importantly, he has done so in a highly professional and collegial manner that demonstrates that you can be a highly accomplished scientist and effective leader, while being a caring and empathetic human being. It has been a pleasure working with him closely during my time as dean."
-Bradley Britigan, M.D., dean, UNMC College of Medicine

For the New York City native, it's been quite a ride. Under his direction, the department has flourished -- tripling its faculty numbers while more than doubling its research funding.

A prodigious researcher in the area of congestive heart failure, Dr. Zucker holds the longest continuously funded program project grant at UNMC - when the grant ends in 2020, it will have generated more than $32 million in funding.

He's quick to share the credit. "It's all about the great people we brought in," he said, citing Harold Schultz, Ph.D., and Kaushik Patel, Ph.D., his key grant collaborators.

Being a research scientist isn't easy. Competition for grants is ferocious.

"Scientists are some of the most insecure people," Dr. Zucker said. "We all know we could lose our funding tomorrow. Every time I write a grant, I don't think it's very good. I've had my share of rejections for sure."

At the same time, he loves the game.

"It comes with being in the academic environment - wondering about the miracle of how the body works," Dr. Zucker said. "If we lose the joy of wondering, we're sunk. You have to have, in some ways, a child's mentality."

He recounts his fascination in observing a jelly fish recently.

"It's unbelievable watching their motion. It's like a dance. If you lose that amazement, you can't do science anymore."

We're glad you still have it, Dr. Z.


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Anyun Ma
February 01, 2019 at 2:46 PM

I've been lucky and honored to be Dr. Z's graduate student. Working in the Z lab you are not only exposed to this rigorous research environment with cutting-edge experimental techniques, but also have a prestigious mentor to look up to. Though an internationally recognized investigator, Dr. Z never interacts with us like a superior boss, instead he is a leader whose ultimate goal is to guide us in exploring the essence of science. He is so enthusiastic about science that even when he tells a joke in our lab dinners, he would chose a scientific topic lol. Dr. Z has always been a great model to me—perseverely dedicated in research and educating, hands-on and kind, patient and tolerant, hardworking and enjoying what he is doing. Congratulations Dr. Z, the next one got to be a same amazing chapter!

Ted Roche
February 01, 2019 at 11:53 AM

Congratulations, Irv! You have had a remarkable career. It is wonderful that you can go down the hall and continue to work with students and faculty to be scientifically productive. Have a wonderful extended career!!

Clarence Ueda
February 01, 2019 at 9:02 AM

Congratulations on your retirement, Irv. What an incredible career! Retirement isn't as bad as you may think; it is quite easy to get used to! Relax and enjoy!

Lauren Luger
January 31, 2019 at 9:34 PM

Love ya Dad! Myself, Brian and the boys are so proud of you! Anytime anything science related comes up, your Grandson’s always say, “we should show this to Grandpa.” You are a role model to all of us and a kind and generous person. Your career speaks foe itself! We have many more years of lunches at UNMC. We love you very much!

Martin Frank, Ph.D., executive director (retired), American Physiological Society
January 30, 2019 at 3:05 PM

I have known Irv for many years as our careers have overlapped at the American Physiological Society. Not only have we been professional colleagues, but we have become social friends, being able to spend time socially with him and Judy. Irv is a displaced New Yorker who made it to Omaha to pursue his career with Joe Gilmore. At the time, he did not expect to spend his career in Omaha but doing so enabled him to have a stellar career in physiology. When he became the department's chair in 1989, his goal was to put together a strong department with a group focusing on the neural control of the circulation. He has done so successfully, managing to maintain research funding throughout his career. As a chair, he has been highly supportive of his faculty, striving to encourage and support their efforts. He also has been a great mentor for students and post-docs who have spent time in his laboratory/department. He has encouraged them to identify challenging problems and to pursue them vigorously. He is well aware that science is not easy, especially when funding opportunities can be difficult. He has been supportive of his students’ career objectives, whether they involve bench science in academia or industry, or if they should decide to use their science in another professional arena. Not only has Irv shown dedication to the department in Omaha as well as to science internationally, he also has shown a commitment to service – an important component of the three-legged stool of academic advancement (teaching, research and service). He has contributed significantly to the advancement of APS through his leadership as an APS president, as an editor of the American Journal of Physiology - Heart and Circulatory Physiology as well as his participation in numerous committees. UNMC, Omaha and the department have benefited immensely from Irv's leadership, and while he has stepped down as chair, his influence will continue as a professor in the department.

Vimla Band, Ph.D., Ardith and Anna Von Housen Professor and Chair, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Anatomy
January 30, 2019 at 3:04 PM

It has been a great privilege to know Irv for over eight years, since the time I assumed responsibility as the chairperson of the GCBA department. Irv has not only been an awesome colleague but also a mentor to me. I have learned many different aspects of UNMC from him given his long and vast experience at the UNMC. In addition to being a great scientist, for which I hold him in highest regard, he is an honest and genuine human being. His wisdom in problem solving and pointing all of us in the right direction during the meetings of the basic science chairs will be greatly missed. I am glad that he will be around so that I can continue to seek his mentorship. I wish him all the best as he continues with his academic work at UNMC and in all his other pursuits.

Cindy Norton, administrator, cellular and integrative physiology
January 30, 2019 at 3:04 PM

Dr. Zucker has been an exceptional leader in our department for many years. His dedication and support for physiology as a discipline and for the individual faculty, support staff, and students in our department has been amazing. I personally would not be where I am today without his support and guidance. Dr. Zucker and I hold the longest running chair and administrator relationship (30 years) in the College of Medicine. It has been a great 30 years, Dr. Zucker – I will miss working with you!

Matthew Zimmerman, Ph.D., associate professor, cellular and integrative physiology
January 30, 2019 at 3:03 PM

When Irv took the chair position, he had a lofty goal to create a department with an incredible national and international reputation in the field of neural control of cardiovascular and renal disease. Over his three decades of being chair, he most certainly accomplished this objective.

Hanjun Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor, anesthesiology
January 30, 2019 at 3:02 PM

Irv is a great mentor, great scientist and great chair! The most important part for me is that he is an excellent mentor! He is the most important mentor in my life. Without Irv’s support, I would have zero chance to be successful! Irv always treats his fellows in a very respectful way. He respects everyone’s mind and lets them independently develop their own careers. He is not a selfish mentor because he gave many opportunities to his young trainees for developing their own grants. As a department chair, Irv is also a very ‘democratic’ chair. He gave more department resources including grant return dollars to his individual faculty instead of keeping them for the department pocket. He’s also one of the hardest-working chairs on campus. He usually comes to the office at 7 a.m. and goes home around 6 p.m. – Monday to Friday. You can’t even imagine that Irv always comes to work every Saturday, if he does not have to travel. He insists on it his entire career, which is unbelievable! As a successful scientist, Irv has an amazing productivity. His PPG has been successfully renewed for 20 years! He published more than 300 papers! He was served as the APS president and editor-in-chief of the AJP-Heart and Circulatory. All of these are great achievements!