Women in Medicine & Sciences Feature: Ruth Heidelberger, MD, PhD

By Roman Petrowski, Office of Communications

Dr. Ruth Heidelberger

Each month, the Women Faculty Forum presents its Women in Medicine and Sciences Feature, highlighting the women faculty at McGovern Medical School who are leaders in medicine, research, and education.

This month’s feature is Ruth Heidelberger, MD, PhD, professor and Frederic B. Asche Chair in Ophthalmology, in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy.

Could you give some background about where you were born, raised, went to college, graduate school and fellowship? When did you join UTHealth Houston?
I grew up in New York, where I attended Stony Brook University (SUNY Stony Brook) for my BS, MD, and PhD degrees.

As an incoming undergraduate, I was fortunate to join the laboratory of physical chemist Dr. Paul C. Lauterbur, who was developing the MRI techniques that would later become a staple of modern medicine and garner him a Nobel Prize. There, I worked alongside physical scientists, mathematicians, programmers and physicians, and co-authored one of the early studies demonstrating that MRI could be used to detect cancer. The experience gave me firsthand insight into the power of applying basic science principles to patient-oriented problems, and it inspired me to pursue the MD/PhD pathway.

During my graduate training with Dr. Gary Matthews and as a postdoctoral fellow with Nobel Laureate Professor Erwin Neher, I shifted my attention to the brain, where I used the retina as a model system for understanding mechanisms of neuronal communication. These scientifically rich experiences prompted my decision to stay in discovery science. In the summer of 1996, I joined the faculty of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at UTHealth Houston.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
My father had a love for science that he shared with me and my siblings when we were growing up. In high school, I recognized that although I enjoyed each of my classes, science was the subject that really held my interest.

What are the primary research interests that drove your career, and what are you pursuing now?
When I started my neuroscience journey, we knew very little about the molecular mechanisms that governed the release of neurotransmitter from neurons. I identified and characterized some of the mechanisms that regulate the timing and amount of evoked neurotransmitter release. As this work progressed, we began to appreciate that first- and second-order neurons of the retina express a unique presynaptic molecular machinery that contributes to their extraordinary ability to continuously relay visual information to downstream neurons over many log units of dynamic range.

We are currently examining one particular protein that has both essential and modulatory roles in neurotransmitter release. In the process of studying this protein, we serendipitously discovered the molecular basis of a severe early onset retinal dystrophy in children.

Who are your role models?
I have been very fortunate in that each of my research mentors have been excellent role models. Scientific rigor, honesty and integrity was front and center of everything that they did. From them, I learned that science is not about striving for some metric. It is about contributing in a meaningful and significant way to our scientific knowledge and understanding.

What did you enjoy most about working at UTHealth Houston?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working at UTHealth Houston has been the highly-collaborative nature of scientists within UTHealth Houston and across the greater TMC campus. My work has been enriched by our local environment.

How do you think UTHealth Houston can further support female faculty?
Previous Women Faculty Forum profiles in SCOOP have discussed strategies to enhance the career development and sponsorship of our women faculty and to increase the number of women in leadership roles at UTHealth Houston. Another important topic is resource allocation. Faculty negotiate for resources throughout their career. For example, one way to receive additional institutional resources as an established faculty member is to get an outside offer at another institution that can be used to negotiate a retention package. In theory, this strategy should work equally well for all faculty of excellence, but in practice this may not be the case. Women faculty are perceived as less likely to move to a new institution because of family ties or a potential “two body problem.” This perception can influence whether or not women faculty receive an outside offer with which to negotiate a retention package. In addition, the perceived lack of mobility can negatively influence the value of any offered retention package. The result is that excellent women faculty may obtain fewer resources to fuel future successes than male colleagues, regardless of the quality of their work.

While the above example is presented as theoretical, there are well-documented cases of gender-bias in resource allocation at academic institutions. Therefore, it seems important to monitor for the equitable allocation of resources, if only to reduce the concern that similar inequities may be happening here. However, it is not a simple task to undertake such as study. For starters, the sample size of women at a given rank in some departments may be too small to allow for meaningful conclusions. Therefore, regular forensic reviews that analyze resource allocation current data and trends over time should be performed. Corrective action should be taken when warranted. Results should be made available for scrutiny by the Faculty Senate, Women Faculty Forum and any member of the faculty by simple request. Openness and transparency on this issue will foster a community of trust that enhances faculty commitment and institutional success.

Is there a woman faculty member you would like to see featured in the monthly Women in Medicine and Sciences feature? Click here to nominate.