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Focus on Eugene Rubin, MD, PhD

Eugene Rubin, MD, PhD is a professor in the department of psychiatry. His areas of clinical research include dementias and depression in the context of chronic illness.

What happened in the course of schooling to make you choose psychiatry as your specialty?

In college I majored in physiological psychology because I was interested in the brain. During medical school my interest in the brain continued and I found it necessary to decide between neurology and psychiatry. My mentor in the MD PhD program was a neurologist, so he encouraged me to go towards neurology. But during my clinical rotations, I became fascinated with the illnesses that psychiatry dealt with -- in terms of the unique aspects of behavioral changes. It was also a time that the field of psychiatry was transitioning to a medical model. I saw tremendous potential in psychiatry and found myself thinking and reading about the nature of psychiatric disorders in my spare time. The possibility of spending my career trying to better understand the relationship of the brain and behavior was too hard to resist.
The Rubins at Cape Cod

What brought you to Washington University?
My undergraduate mentor at the University of Rochester encouraged me to think about integrating brain-oriented research with medical school because I was curious about how the body and brain worked together. As a result of his encouragement, I began to consider MD PhD programs. I applied to Washington University’s MD PhD program and was invited to come for an interview. During my visit, I was overwhelmed by everyone’s friendliness and the quality of work being done here.

How did you gravitate towards teaching and research as your career priorities?

I continued training in basic neuroscience research after my residency training. During that time, one of my heroes, Leonard Berg, MD, a pioneer in Alzheimer’s research, asked me to consider joining the clinical research team in the Alzheimer’s disease research group. In addition to participating in research, I wanted to fulfill a long-term dream of developing expertise as an educator. I decided that participating in clinical research (instead of basic science research) would provide a better opportunity to combine major teaching roles with a research career. Although I no longer have a primary role in taking care of patients, I do supervise residents and medical students in many clinical venues.

Which aspect of your career is most interesting?

As we get older, our careers go through different phases. Right now, what is most interesting and what I consider to be the most important aspect of my work is the writing that I’m doing with Charles Zorumski, MD. Chuck is our department head and one of my best friends. He and I have recently published two books: “Demystifying Psychiatry, A Resource for Patients and Families.” , and "Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience: A Primer". The first book is written for patients and their family members. It was our goal to help the reader understand practical issues about psychiatry and psychiatric care, as well as how to navigate today’s psychiatric system.

The second book is geared towards psychiatry and neurology residents would be usefuland graduate students. So, we are now in the middle of writing another book titled – “Psychiatric Neuroscience, a Primer.”The purpose of this book is to facilitate the incorporation of recent advances in neuroscience research into clinically relevant information.

Writing books and teaching residents and medical students are areas that I find very rewarding.

Are there any new developments in your field that you are excited about?

There are two new developments in psychiatry that I find most exciting. The first one involves the fact that we’re beginning to understand how specific brain systems are related to certain patterns of behavior.Several such brain systems  are currently being defined. Each of these systems takes advantage of unique information processing characteristics of specific brain structures.

The derailing of various functional systems in the brain is likely to be related to specific neuropsychiatric disorders. For instance, Alzheimer’s disease may be related to dysfunction in one such brain system called the “default system.” I predict that this new research information related to functional brain systems will have clinical implications within the next 10 years, especially in areas of addiction and anxiety disorders.

Our brain is constantly being rewired – it is not static, it’s very dynamic. Because of this “plasticity” in the brain, there are increasing opportunities for therapeutic interventions.

The second area that I find very interesting involves models for delivering psychiatric care in the future. In order for us to take care of the growing number of patients, I see psychiatrists working in a consultant role with primary care teams in order to provide care for patients with milder or well-managed disorders. For very severe psychiatric illnesses, I envision psychiatrists incorporating the talents of other mental health professionals – psychologists, counselors, and social workers - in addition to coordinating care with the primary care team.

Where are you from?

I grew up in a suburb outside of Boston. After graduating from the University of Rochester in 1971, I came to St. Louis for the MD PhD program at Washington University. I have been here ever since. So although I didn’t ‘go to high school’ in St. Louis, I’ve been here the majority of my life and I consider this to be my home.
Is there a particular award or achievement that is most gratifying?

In recognition for the twenty years that I directed the psychiatry residency training program, I was fortunate enough to win the 2009 Medical School’s Distinguished Educator Award for House Staff Teaching. This award acknowledged the educational focus of my career and I was thrilled to receive it.

Separate from that, my luckiest event was meeting my spouse Dottie over 35 years ago. We met while working together in the lab and are still working together today.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

After I finished my chief residency, I was trying to decide in which direction to go with my career. I was a basic science researcher by training, but my true passion was education. I talked to Samuel Guze, MD who was head of the department of psychiatry, Vice Chancellor of the medical school, and historically, one of this University’s most distinguished figures. Sam’s advice was “You need to be true to your passion, anything else is secondary. Figure out how to tailor your career so that it includes your passion, but at the same time be pragmatic about your choices -- and you will be happy.”

That is how I’ve modeled my career. It’s been very good advice.

If you weren’t a doctor, what would you like to be doing?

If I wasn’t a doctor, I would very much enjoy teaching at a small liberal arts college.
When I started thinking about how great it would be to be a small liberal arts college professor, my son gave me some excellent advice. He asked, “Why don’t you become one now? You can make Washington University a small liberal arts college equivalent.” That’s when I approached the psychology department about teaching a course titled “Drugs, Brain and Behavior.” I have taught this course annually in the fall since 2007.

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Copyright 2015 Washington University School of Medicine