Faculty Focus: David Dick, PhD

What is your hometown?  

I was born in Tacoma, Washington and grew up in Renton, Washington (a suburb that is about 12 miles South of Seattle, Washington).

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?

I joined as a Clinical Assistant Professor in October 2011.

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

I’ve been interested in science and medicine for as long as I can remember. Growing up I always thought I would be a doctor or scientist and would cure cancer. I took every science class offered at my high school, and for a time thought about going to medical school when I was done with my undergraduate education. However, my love for physics really blossomed during my undergraduate years and I decided to stay in science rather than go to medical school.

What interested you to pursue a career in Radiology?

My parents told me that I better figure out a career path before I declared physics as my undergraduate major, as they had no idea what one does with a degree in physics. I did some research on potential job markets and the field of medical physics really intrigued me. I did further research on medical physics and fell in love with positron emission tomography (PET), a nuclear medicine technique used in radiology. I decided that I wanted to get my Ph.D. in medical physics so that I could work in the PET field and help elucidate normal versus disease states.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

I had a plethora of amazing teachers throughout my education, but there are two teachers/mentors who are the most responsible for shaping my career. The first is Dr. Brad Johnson, one of my undergraduate teachers and undergraduate mentor. Dr. Johnson was critical in teaching me how to analyze and solve problems (both physics and non-physics!) as well as encouraging me to believe in my abilities. The second is Dr. Jerry Nickles, who was my graduate mentor. He taught me that one of the most important components of intelligence is humility, and to explore every crazy idea in your head, as you never know which idea is going to lead to a groundbreaking discovery.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?

The University of Iowa has always had a strong PET program and I had spent a few years on a committee with two University of Iowa faculty members. They strongly encouraged me to apply when a faculty position became open. During my interview, I was very impressed with the opportunities that the University of Iowa offered, as there are numerous world-class researchers on the faculty that are willing and able to collaborate on clinical research that will benefit the patients. That kind of environment appealed to me greatly and made the decision to come to the University of Iowa very easy.

The University of Iowa’s faculty members are united to provide exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries into patient centered care and education?

Some of my work directly translates new discoveries into patient centered care, as my lab manufactures radiopharmaceuticals used for clinical research as well as the routine clinical radiopharmaceuticals used in PET.

What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?

The biggest advantage I have being a faculty member at an academic medical center is the ability to collaborate with experts in other fields of medicine in order to develop new radiopharmaceuticals and perform clinical trials to assess the new radiopharmaceutical’s safety and efficacy.

Please describe your professional interests.

I am interested in the labeling of small molecules with positron-emitting radionuclides. I utilize a variety of techniques (remote synthesis, microwave heating, nanochemistry) to drive reaction rates faster, as most of the radionuclides I work with have very short half-lives (minutes to hours) and as a result, decay quickly. Currently I am collaborating with a faculty member in the Department to develop novel radiopharmaceuticals that are able to image nitric oxide synthase inhibitors. These radiopharmaceuticals could be used to assess/monitor diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I am also exploring the potential of imaging reactive oxygen species with radiopharmaceuticals. These radiopharmaceuticals would give us further insight into a multitude of diseases that produce reactive oxygen species, including inflammatory, ischemic and neurological diseases as well as cancer.

What led to your interest in your field?

I’ve always had a love for science and took coursework in physics, chemistry and biology as an undergraduate student and biochemistry as a graduate student. I really enjoy the field of radiochemistry, as it involves using many different sciences rather than just concentrating on one.

How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?

The biggest advantage I have being a faculty member at an academic medical center is the ability to collaborate with experts in other fields of medicine in order to develop new radiopharmaceuticals and perform clinical trials to assess the new radiopharmaceutical’s safety and efficacy.

What are some of your outside interests?

I enjoy practicing the martial arts. I am a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo and two stripe white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I drive a MINI Cooper and take it to track days, driving on road courses and pushing the tires to their limits as I try to keep up with the higher horsepower cars. I volunteer on the board of the North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball League, serving as Rookie Baseball Commissioner and Head Umpire.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

As a basic scientist working in a clinical department, my guiding philosophy is to talk to the physicians about needs for the clinic, and then focusing my research on filling the clinical needs rather than developing a radiopharmaceutical and then trying to figure out if it meets a clinical need.

If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine/science), what would it be?

I would have congress allocate more money to medical research, as research funding is not increasing at the same rate as the increase in expense for conducting research, let alone the fact that there are more researchers now applying for funding. Having bigger medical research budgets would allow researchers to actually do research rather than constantly revising grants in hopes of one day getting funding.

What is the biggest change you’ve experienced in your field since you were a student?

The biggest change is with the regulatory oversight of positron emission tomography drugs. The FDA has implemented new rules for positron emission tomography drugs over the past five years. These new rules are good in that they ensure patient safety and have brought increased relevancy to the field of positron emission tomography. However, it has also increased the paperwork burden, which eats into the amount of time one has for research.

What one piece of advice would you give to today’s students?

I encourage students to pursue a well-rounded education and not to focus on one field too early in your academic career. It took me a while to determine that I wanted to be a scientist (I was a music major for my first two undergraduate years!) and without taking a broad spectrum of coursework I may not have found my passion.

What do you see as “the future” of medicine/science?

I believe that there will be a shift to more preventative medicine in the future, in line with Benjamin Franklin’s saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Technology will allow us to better monitor people’s normal state and detect diseases earlier when they are more treatable rather than at later stages where it may be too late for effective treatment.