People in Your La Jolla Neighborhood: Meet husband-and-wife UCSD research duo Ajit and Nissi Varki

Ajit and Nissi Varki met in medical school in India when they were 16 years old.
(Photo by Corey Levitan)


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When Nissi Varki drives home from work, it’s not to see her husband. Ajit Varki is already in the car. They’re a husband-and-wife research team at UC San Diego, where he is also a professor of medicine, she a professor of pathology.

While it’s common for researchers to meet and marry, it’s almost unheard of for them to collaborate on the same projects. And the Varkis’ latest project, published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), may just revolutionize the study of heart disease. It theorizes why the disease is the single biggest killer of men and women alike: a mutation that occurred millions of years ago in our pre-human ancestors. (Spoiler alert: the news is not good for aging red-meat lovers.)

The Light visited the Varkis in their house above Ardath Road, where they discussed their home-work balance.

Most husbands and wives couldn’t spend 24/7 together. How can you?

Ajit: “We’re on the same floor and our offices are down the hall, so we can collaborate, but we have separate labs and don’t see each other that much.”

Nissi: “I work with a lot of people who need their stuff analyzed. So I don’t only work with him, I work with other investigators who need analysis of tissues.”

Ajit: “Actually, she’s being modest. She’s the mouse pathologist of San Diego. You’ve got a sick mouse, you don’t know what’s wrong with it, you go to her. But I’ve also gotten into this whole human origins center (the Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny), a big conglomerate of people from around the world who get together and talk about what makes us human. So that’s my other sort of hobby, but I actually dragged her a little bit into that, too.”

Nissi: “It’s almost like I was separate, and then he’s like, ‘Can you come look at this? Why are you helping all those other people?’”

How do you compartmentalize work time and private time together? What if you have an insight during dinner?

Ajit: “She just tells me to stop it.”

Nissi: “I say, ‘We are home. We are going to talk about these other things. I’m not going to talk about work.’”

Ajit: “Then, at 6 a.m., we kind of come out of that and start talking science as we’re getting ready to go to work and driving in.”

You have both lived in the same cities together since the ‘70s. What compromises did you have to make in your careers to accomplish that?

Ajit: “There have been multiple occasions when we had to live apart to keep careers going. I happened to finish my training first, so having not found any academic opportunities to go back to India, I got a job first at UCSD, while Nissi then completed a postdoc at The Scripps Research Institute. But when she applied to UCSD, she was rejected.”

Nissi: “So I started at UCLA as an assistant professor. So we used to commute.”

Ajit: “The key thing that’s missing in all this is when you have a child. We have one child. She was born just before Nissi went to <FZ,1,0,26>UCLA. So we had a baby commuting up and down, and that got really difficult. So I tried moving to UCLA, Nissi tried moving back here and she finally compromised for a less-desirable position at UCSD. I believe that, in most instances, the choices favored my career. The obvious prejudice against women in science and academia — especially in the early periods — also made this approach more practical.”

You’re both recently credited with the groundbreaking discovery that chimpanzees don’t get heart attacks from blocked arteries. Did you contribute equally?

Ajit: “To be fair, the veterinarians already knew this. But when something was different between chimpanzees and humans, they didn’t talk about it. There was one little paper here and there and that was it. So, we got a bunch of people together and Nissi led the paper that said that humans and chimps have heart disease but the causes are different.

And then I asked, ‘what’s going on here?’ So we studied these mice and turned off a gene that humans no longer have. And it turned out these mice got double the amount of atherosclerosis. So this sugar, this molecule that the gene produces, disappeared from our systems two or three million years ago. But then, Nissi confirmed that small amounts of it were present in cancers and fetuses and various inflamed tissues.

So, initially, we thought there must be a second mechanism to make this molecule. But it turns out that we’re eating the stuff and it’s coming back into us. And the primary source is red meat. We don’t make this molecule.

It sneaks into our cells and the immune system says, ‘What the hell is this?’ And it reacts. So what we think is happening is that humans already have this propensity to heart disease, maybe due to this mutation, and then red meat is the gasoline on the fire.”

For a mutation to survive, there must be more of an evolutionary upside to it than a downside. What did this mutation do for us that helped?

Ajit: “This mutation may have meant escape from some disease and then helped us run and start hunting, maybe. So the red meat is a very positive thing when you’re young, but then becomes a negative thing.”

Would this support the health advice we get nowadays, or suggest something different?

Ajit: “This research doesn’t change any of the recommendations for how we should live — exercise, diet, all that stuff.”

Do you eat red meat?

Nissi: “Not anymore. But we lived in Omaha for two years.”

Ajit: “And then I found out that 80 percent of people in my lab ate red meat. So that’s another story I’m interested in. What the hell’s wrong with us humans? Even when we know what we’re supposed to do, we don’t do it.”

Do you ever argue?

Ajit: “We do. But in science, argument is part of the story.”

But how do you stop a work disagreement from spilling over into ‘Why don’t you ever clean the bathroom’?

Nissi: “He knows if he doesn’t do something I ask him to do, then he doesn’t get dinner. He knows where his bread is buttered.”