Robert Eckel at desk
Dr. Robert “Bob” Eckel is serving as interim vice chancellor for research while a search for a permanent replacement is underway. Eckel has served as program director of the Clinical Translational Research Center Network of the Colorado Clinical Translational Sciences Institute (CCTSI) and the CU Adult General Clinical Research Center. He was only the second endocrinologist ever to serve as president of the American Heart Association.

It might have been what killed the cat, but to Dr. Robert “Bob” Eckel, the University of Colorado’s new interim vice chancellor for research, curiosity propels a successful career and research program.

“It’s what drives the bus here,” said Eckel, MD, recently tapped for the job left vacant by Dr. Richard “Dick” Traystman’s death this fall, as CU administrators launch a search for a permanent vice chancellor.

Although “filling Dick’s shoes is impossible,” Eckel, an international expert in his field of lipid and lipoprotein metabolism and a recognized face on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus after nearly 40 years, said he hopes his ingrained curiosity can serve as a catalyst for furthering the research enterprise at an institution that has been good to him and his profession.

“There are many components to a successful career in science and medicine,” Eckel said. “But curiosity, in my opinion, is one of the most important factors. If curiosity is driving you, then grants, papers and quality research will follow.”

Fanning the curiosity flame

The curiosity flame was lit early in Eckel’s career. After conceding that he was no Vivaldi and ditching the thought of a profession in music (a passion that led him to his first wife, a talented violinist), Eckel decided his idea of medical school was more on track. “And I knew it would make my mother happier.”

But his vision of being solely a clinically-focused doctor soon vanished. “I found out during my residency in internal medicine that I was starting to get increasingly curious about what made people sick and why they weren’t responding to therapy,” said Eckel, an endocrinologist in both the School of Medicine’s Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes and Division of Cardiology. He also has an appointment in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.

“I thought if I wanted to pursue that drive, that ultimately I needed to be trained in research,” said Eckel, crediting his subsequent research-fellowship experience at the University of Washington for fanning the flames. “I came out on fire for research.”

‘There are many components to a successful career in science and medicine. But curiosity, in my opinion, is one of the most important factors. If curiosity is driving you, then grants, papers and quality research will follow.’ – Robert Eckel, MD

Bringing a dual perspective

Eckel, who often calls himself a “cross-dresser” as a preventive cardiologist and endocrinologist, said he loves all components of his job. “As a clinician, I’m more of a preventive cardiologist, but as a scientist, I’m a metabolically-driven guy,” he said, adding that his physician-scientist perspective brings a different “twist” to the vice chancellor position.

As an investigator, Eckel thrives on being tucked in his lab, where he and Assistant Research Professor Kimberley Bruce, PhD, have expanded their longtime focus on how lipids (such as cholesterol and triglycerides) and lipoproteins (which carry lipids) relate to obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The two have joined forces with Wendy Macklin, PhD, a leading expert on glial biology in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, in investigating how lipids and lipoproteins play a role in neurological disorders, such as Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, with a renewed funding award on Feb. 1.

“Myelin is loaded with lipids,” Eckel said, referring to the myelin sheath that protects the body’s nervous system. With MS, a disabling degenerative disease that affects an estimated 400,000 Americans, myelin is slowly destroyed. “So we are involved in understanding how lipids and lipoproteins can be processed to re-myelinate nerves that have been demyelinated.”

Eckel and wife at Nuggets game
Dr. Robert Eckel poses with Rocky and wife, Margaret, at a Nuggets game. Eckel credits the women in his life for much of his success.

Encouraging research partnerships

Bruce and Eckel have also teamed up with another top CU Anschutz Medical Campus researcher, SOM’s Department of Neurology’s Huntington Potter, PhD, in their work on the role of lipids and lipoproteins and the brain-degenerating Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s affects at least 5.5 million Americans, a number expected to soar with an aging population.

During her years working beside him, Bruce said Eckel has served as a great mentor and role model. “I’ve learned a great deal from Bob, not just about lipid and lipoprotein biology, but also about how to strive for scientific excellence while still keeping your feet on the ground,” she said. “I honestly can’t think of anyone better for this vice chancellor role.”

No stranger to cross-disciplinary collaboration, Eckel said researcher success also depends on networking. “None of us is an island anymore in science and medicine. There are no single-authored papers anymore. Science is really teamwork, and that’s something I will consider as I look at the big network of research on both campuses.”

Recognizing research’s influence

Eckel, winner of the Endocrine Society’s 2016 Outstanding Clinical Investigator Award, understands the power of research on both a professional and a personal level.

Diagnosed at age 5 with Type 1 diabetes, a disease he shares with two sons and opted early on to separate from his lab work, Eckel said he’s grateful for his colleagues who have made huge research strides in the insulin-related disorder.

“There’s been so much improvement in therapeutics for Type 1 diabetes,” he said. “I have a pump and a sensor,” he said, patting his lower chest, where a pump automatically infuses the insulin his body cannot make. “I’ve had this disease for 65 years now, and I’ve never felt better in my life. I feel fortunate to be alive, and that’s research,” he said.

Finding collaboration on all fronts

Eckel with family
Dr. Robert Eckel balances career and family, which includes three grandchildren and five grown children. Eckel, who emphasizes the importance of music in a well-rounded lifestyle, taught each of his kids piano until they were in sixth grade.

Eckel doesn’t just stand out in his field. In 2016, he won Father of the Year from the American Diabetes Association, for which he serves on the board. A devoted but humble family man, he doesn’t take the credit for his well-rounded success.

“It’s the women I’ve done it all with,” he said, acknowledging his first wife, who worked as a teacher while he went through medical school and then raised their five children before she died of breast cancer at age 45. “She was a great mom.”

Eckel eventually married his current wife, Margaret. “She stepped up and became a stepmom who’s now loved by all of my kids, and I’ve been married to her almost as long as I was my first wife. So I had great companionship and love from two women, and I probably didn’t deserve either one of them.”

On the professional side, Eckel said Bruce “runs the bus” in his research lab. “She’s smarter than I am. I’m lucky to have her.” With a retirement date set for July 1, 2019, Eckel hopes to have his research program ready to hand over to Bruce and to have fulfilled his new interim post to the best of his ability.

“I work at a great institution that’s been incredibly supportive, and it’s a privilege to serve,” said Eckel, who will not vie for the permanent post. “But right now, I’m neither intellectually nor emotionally ready to retire. The science is just too much fun.”