Colleagues remember Dr. Jeff Robbins
Drake Medalist and noted cardiovascular researcher died Aug. 20
Jeffrey Robbins, PhD, professor emeritus in the College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and a Daniel Drake Medalist, died Saturday morning, Aug. 20, when he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle near his Indian Hill home. He was 71.
Even more tragically, the day was Robbins’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Robbins, who retired in 2019, was internationally known for his expertise in the molecular underpinnings of heart disease and the genetic basis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and heart failure. His early work led to the development of tools that are currently used worldwide to affect the protein complement of the heart. His work focused on understanding the behavior of both the normal contractile proteins and the mutations that cause cardiovascular disease. Robbins’ research advanced the understanding of both normal and disease-causing cardiac proteins.
“I would describe him as larger than life,” says Litsa Kranias, PhD, Hanna Professor of Pharmacology and Systems Physiology and Distinguished University Research Professor at the College of Medicine. “He was an amazing scientist and a leader in the cardiovascular field. He was a true mentor, a great and generous colleague and also a kind human being.”
Kranias had collaborated closely with Robbins since 1985 when he first joined the College of Medicine faculty as an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Cell Biophysics.
“He was my sounding board and somebody I could discuss everything with,” Kranias adds. “Jeff was very sharp and told you his honest thoughts. That’s what I’ll miss most about him, along with his smiling face that was always there for me.”
Sakthivel Sadayappan, PhD, MBA, professor and vice chair for basic research in the Department of Internal Medicine, began training with Robbins in 2002 as a postdoctoral fellow. Robbins later helped recruit Sadayappan back to UC from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in 2016.
“Jeff Robbins is a legend in the cardiovascular field,” Sadayappan says. “Whenever people asked him with proper justifications for help, he quickly responded and shared his reagents unconditionally. He always told me ‘sharing your reagents, sharing your knowledge, you will not lose anything. You will gain more.’”
Known as the “father of cardiac transgenesis,” Robbins developed reagents that helped scientists understand the actions of proteins responsible for human cardiac disease and design effective therapies.
Sadayappan says Robbins quickly evolved from a mentor to a close friend and colleague, adding that Robbins eventually became like a father to him and his family. He fondly recalls taking Robbins on a three-week trip in 2019 to visit his family in India and that Robbins told him it was the first real vacation he had ever taken. They were scheduled to return to India in 2021, but did not go because of COVID. They were planning a trip there next year.
“He was always there for me for anything. It’s so hard to believe and accept that he is no longer here,” Sadayappan says.
In 2009, Robbins received the Daniel Drake Medal, the highest honor awarded to faculty and alumni by the College of Medicine. On receiving the honor, he said: “My career was dictated by a number of character traits: I liked asking questions, I enjoyed working with my hands and I was pretty contemptuous and sometimes inappropriately outspoken in my views. I think all of these are good traits for a basic researcher.”
“So why do I have the best job in the world?” he continued. “I get to ask the questions that I want to ask and can accrue the resources necessary to answer them. I get paid to play and, while playing, get to give something back to my students, fellows, colleagues, city and country. It is truly exhilarating to be able to make a difference, help people, acquire knowledge and have fun while doing it. As a boy I knew there was nothing else that I’d rather do and that is one thing that has remained constant throughout my career.”
In a 2010 interview with the journal Circulation Research, Robbins, a native of metropolitan New York, described an early experiment he had attempted as a teen in his family’s bathroom that went awry. He had convinced his mother he was sick and was home by himself.
“My father had this hair tonic, which was flammable. The idea was I would go into the bathroom, seal it off, weigh the hair tonic, and weigh three rolls of toilet paper. I did this and then soaked the toilet paper in the hair tonic and set it on fire. I wanted to collect all the ash to see whether or not I could measure the combustion, but it all floated up to the ceiling and went everywhere. It wasn’t pretty,” he recalled. “That day, I learned that there are two parts to an experiment. One is conceptualizing and the other is execution—the execution was a little flawed.”
He also remembered trying to grow paramecium and thought his family’s washing machine might make a good centrifuge. He placed three gallons of paramecium culture in the washer, but the machine overflowed and flooded the apartment below. “Boy, that machine really stunk after the experiment,” he said.
Robbins received his doctorate in genetics and development in 1976 from the University of Connecticut. He then served as a fellow under Jerry Lingrel, PhD, former UC chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry and Microbiology, where he led the experimental team that first isolated and purified the goat globin genes. Following seven years on the faculty of the University of Missouri, he joined the College of Medicine faculty. Robbins moved to Cincinnati Children’s and the pediatrics faculty in 1993 to start and serve as director of the Division of Molecular Cardiovascular Biology. In July 2009, he helped create the Cincinnati Children’s Heart Institute, of which he served as executive co-director until his retirement. He also served as associate chair for research at Cincinnati Children’s.
In addition to the Drake Medal, Robbins received numerous other honors including the William Cooper Procter Medallion, the highest honor bestowed by Cincinnati Children’s, in 2019; the 2009 George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Distinguished Scientific Research from UC; the 2008 Basic Cardiovascular Sciences Council’s Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Heart Association (AHA); the 2007 Presidential Award from the International Society for Heart Research; and the 2005 Research Achievement Award from the AHA. He also was elected a fellow of the American Cancer Society, AHA, International Society for Heart Research and the International Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences.
Robbins is survived by his wife, Roz, and sons, Stuart and Andrew.
Photos courtesy Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.