Dr. Ajit Varki’s inquisitive mind never seems to rest
Ajit Varki is Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at UC San Diego, Co-Director of the UCSD Glycobiology Research and Training Center, and Co-Director of the UCSD/Salk Institute Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA). He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has held numerous leadership positions in academic medicine and biology and received many honors and awards in these fields.
Although board certified in internal medicine, hematology and oncology, his major efforts currently focus on fundamental research studies of cell surface sugars called sialic acids –– particularly the multiple differences between humans and our closest evolutionary cousins, which appear relevant to understanding unique aspects of human biology and disease.
He recently co-authored a popular science book on unique features of humans, titled “Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind.” (See story here.)
What brought you to La Jolla?
I joined the faculty of UC San Diego School of Medicine in 1982, and always wanted to live as close to work as possible. My wife, Nissi, and I were finally able to move to La Jolla in 2004.
What might you add, subtract or improve in the area?
Fewer people driving, more people walking, more respect for cyclists, and less fog on cold days.
Who or what inspires you?
Great thinkers of the past, in science, philosophy and religion.
If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?
On my guest list would be: Mary Magdalene, Gautama Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Ida Scudder (the founder of my alma mater CMC Vellore), my illustrious journalist grandfather Pothan Joseph, and last, but not least, my late co-author Danny Brower, who I only met in person for an hour or so. Danny and I would spend the evening seeking opinions of the other guests about our new theory for explaining unique features of the human mind.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading “The Artful Species,” by philosopher Stephen Davies; “The Bonobo and the Atheist,” by primatologist Franz De Waal; and “Above All Else,” by world-champion sky jumper Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld.
What is it that you most dislike?
After more than a century of successful application of rational thinking and scientific knowledge to the problems of the world, many Americans have slipped into a form of “Denialism,” in which they selectively choose to believe and disbelieve well-documented facts that are put before them. This is a very dangerous trend, particularly when it comes to denying serious realities that are staring us in the face, such as climate destabilization.
What is your most-prized possession?
Nothing I can really think of, since I know that I cannot take anything with me. My late father often reminded me of Leo Tolstoy’s classic short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (six feet, in which to be buried).
What do you do for fun?
Get together with family and friends, playing with the dog and cats, listening to rock ‘n’ roll music and also going to work. Yes, I’m among the fortunate few who cannot wait to get to work every day; my work is my way of life.
What is your motto or philosophy of life?
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” —Ecclesiastes 9:10
What would be your dream vacation?
A week at Crater Lake Lodge with closest family and friends, with stimulating conversation and reading materials, but minus the phone, Internet and TV.
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