Regents Professor of Medicine Robert Hebbel is a leading researcher of sickle-cell and related diseases.
A sickle-cell sleuth
Regents Professor Robert Hebbel leads the way in research on the disease
By M.J. Pehl
March 7, 2008
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 experts on sickle cell disease. Robert Hebbel holds the George Clark Professorship in the Department of Medicine and also is the department's vice chair 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-1970s, he attended the University of Minnesota Medical School and considered becoming a pediatrician in 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, an inherited disorder in which normally round red blood cells assume a crescent shape, making it difficult for them to pass through tiny blood vessels. This can lead to anemia, jaundice, gallstones, and strokes and can also cause damage to lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys. Hebbel describes sickle cell as "a disease with molecular origin and a disease of great historical interest." He is 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 is quick to admit he had 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 around the world were surveyed in the late 1990s about the most important scientific developments in sickle cell disease research in the past 25 years. At the top of the list was Hebbel's 1980 observation of abnormally adhesive sickled red cells.
"I love the 'aha!' moment, finding out how something works in biology."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." 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, 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. Hebbel says he continues to be amazed at the talent at the University, and he feels strongly that good role models and mentors are 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." So Hebbel puts his money where his mouth is: to the graduate education and mentorship of minority students. He has founded and served as the director of several programs that 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." "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," says University President Robert Bruininks. There is life beyond the lab, though. One of his favorite places is Jackson Hole, Wyoming. "I love the mountains, the whole area," he says with a glint in his eye. Hebbel also loves to write, but flaty admits that he has no talent for fiction. "But I love writing nonfiction," he says. "I love to write papers and grants, and being involved in the preparation of grants," he says. "I'm a lot more mellow that people think I am. "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."