Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Infectious disease specialists complement each other

Dr. Atul Humar, left, and his wife, Dr. Deepali Kumar, both physicians and infectious disease researchers, work in a lab at Katz Group Centre for Pharmacology on the University of Alberta campus. Photograph by: Shaughn Butts, The Journal, Edmonton Journal

Super' duo together, at home and at work

By Chris Zdeb, Edmonton Journal

Physician-scientists Atul Humar and Deepali Kumar are the only husband-wife transplant infectious disease team in the world.

Transplant patients are subject to infections because of the powerful drugs they take to suppress their immune systems so they won't reject the new organs. Humar researches how herpes viruses cause disease in these immunocompromised people. Kumar looks at how transplant patients respond to vaccines.

The similarity of their work allows them to manage each other's patients or research projects when necessary.

"They're a super couple who work almost seamlessly with each other, even though they very keenly maintain their own identity," says Dr. Barbara Ballermann, chairwoman of the University of Alberta department of medicine, where they work. "That type of relationship is really uncommon."

Their team approach continues at home, where they are parents to son Dino, 6, and daughters Sapna, 9, and Sonika, 4.

"We spend a lot of time together," says Humar, prompting laughter from his wife.

Adds Kumar: "Ideas don't occur to somebody only from 9 to 5, so if an idea occurs in the evening, then it's very easy to bounce ideas off each other" -- when they're not running off to take the kids to soccer, swimming, taekwondo or piano, that is.

Their offices are next door to one another in the Katz Group Centre for Pharmacology. They also work side by side in a lab on another floor.

Told that some might see this as too much togetherness, the pair smiles and nods.

"Couples who get along really well with each other say, 'Oh that's really cool,' and those that don't get along go, 'How do you tolerate that?' " Humar says, laughing.

"Like, 'How do you stand to be with each other for 24 hours?' So we get both reactions," Kumar adds.

Humar and Kumar have a "very compatible temperament" that's important to their success, not only as husband and wife, but as scientists, observes Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, a former dean of the faculty of medicine and dentistry who also works with infectious diseases at the U of A. He has known them for 18 months.

Humar says he's good at coming up with ideas, but not at implementation and logistics, which are Kumar's strong points.

"I think that's why our research has worked so well together because we kind of complement each other's strengths and weaknesses," he says.

The couple have an easy rapport, and often finish each other's sentences, as happens sometimes when you've been married for 10 years.

They share interests in Indian music and Bollywood movies. Kumar is such a fan, she doesn't think twice before answering she'd like to be a leading Bollywood actress if she wasn't a physician-scientist.

"If somebody came and said, 'You have a part in a movie,' I'd go, 'I'm there,' " she says, laughing. "But then I'd come back and do my day job."

Humar, a space buff who is into Star Trek and Star Wars, says he would be an astronaut.

Their lives became entwined when they met through their parents, who are friends and academics at Carleton University in Ottawa. Kumar was 18 and Humar 22.

They have so many "really freaky" things in common -- among them, the similarity of their last names, and their dads sharing the same birthday -- that Kumar says it's almost as if they were fated to meet and be together.

But they lost touch as education and work took them to different places in Canada and the U.S., until their infectious disease specialties brought them together again.

"We were friends for a long time," Humar, 41, says.

"We lived in different cities; we didn't really date. One day, I guess it was sort of time to get married," finishes Kumar, 37.

Humar was at the University of Toronto, where he pioneered the first transplant infectious diseases program in Canada, when Kumar started working there in 2004.

They moved to Edmonton in 2007 after the U of A came calling with positions and lab space.

Humar is the director of the transplant infectious diseases program and an associate professor of medicine.

Kumar is an assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases. (Her work was recently recognized with an award from the American Society of Transplantation.)

Their stars will continue to rise, says Ballermann, noting that because of how long it takes to train in medicine, people in their early 40s are still considered fairly young.

"They may not have achieved the status of Wayne Gretzky in medicine, but they're on the same team," she says.

Besides finding their ideal jobs here, the couple, who have a five-minute commute from home, also found the work-life balance they were looking for.

"It's just a more kid-friendly place (than Toronto) basically," Humar says. "It allows us to do what we want to do at work and, at the same time, allows us to spend time with the kids and ensure that they're able to do all the things they want to do, and yet, spend time as a family.

"Work is important and we put 110 per cent into work, but our life revolves around our kids. Family is always No. 1."

Many people, especially academics, are very driven and their work is kind of an overriding thing, he continues. "But I think the main message here is that you can actually do both (be a parent and an academic), and do them well. It's all about what you decide are your priorities."

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