May 01, 2012

Julia E. Richards, PhD

Julia E. Richards, PhD
What are you thinking about?

How does aging increase risk of disease like glaucoma, changing someone who was healthy for the first seven decades of life into someone whose cells can no longer carry out some important function that worked well when they were younger?

Why is this interesting to you?

Trying to heal a problem after it has started is like putting up sandbags to stop the rising water below a broken dam. Wouldn’t we rather keep the dam from breaking in the first place? Or in this case keep the aging cells from making mistakes that increase disease risk?

What are the practical implications for health care?

If we can turn back the clock on a cellular process that breaks down with aging, we can reduce risk of diseases such as glaucoma, or at least delay their onset.

When you’re not working, what do you do?

I spend time with my husband, Carl, and my younger son, Colin. Sometimes I travel to Arizona to visit my older son Adrian and his family. I like to read, listen to TED (annual “Technology, Entertainment and Design” conference) presentations, and watch wildlife in our backyard. Where else can you be an eight-minute commute from a top-ranked medical center and yet live with deer and geese and a pond in your backyard?

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

The Human Genome: A User’s Guide, the text book I co-wrote with my colleague Scott Hawley. We wanted to make science interesting to people who don’t like traditional science writing, and to make basic genetic concepts accessible to people who lack a strong biology background. Each time a non-scientist says, “I love this book!” I feel like it was worth the work!

What moment in the lab stands out as the most memorable?

Discovering a new disease gene. It is an amazing thing – to spot a typo in the genetic blueprint and realize that we know something that no one in all of history ever knew before. And to know that this discovery offers the first clues for how to solve a major health problem.

What inspires you?

Brilliance, creativity, integrity and kindness all inspire me. I have been blessed in my choice of mentors and colleagues and it amazes me that I have spent my career surrounded by people who each embody all four of these concepts.

What’s your favorite spot on campus?

I love the Helmut Stern garden at the Kellogg Eye Center. The glass-walled lobbies wrap around a flowery oasis filled with the gentle sound of water flowing across a water wall sculpture, “Gathered Sounds” by artist Anne Kirby Rubin. The combination of sights and sounds washes the visitor in a sense of peace and calm; it’s a wonderful cure for the stress of a busy day.