In the summer of 2008, Ian Parker, professor of neurobiology at UC Irvine, had been in London for the week awaiting the reception in which he would be inducted into the Royal Society, the world’s oldest and arguably most prestigious scientific society.
Now, Parker found himself glancing nervously at the clock. He knew that, momentarily, he would sign a charter book that contained the names of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.
The ceremony was scheduled for the evening of Friday, July 11. Throughout the festivities, Parker was still preoccupied, anticipating the events that would take place on July 14, 2008.
That was the day the Badwater Ultramarathon began, and he knew that he needed to be in Death Valley, CA that Sunday afternoon to register for the race.
Saturday morning Parker and his family raced to Heathrow Airport to catch a flight back to the United States.
On Sunday morning, they quickly loaded a truck with the supplies that would sustain him and his support crew for the 60-hour period it would take to run the 135-mile stretch of the race.
Parker made it in time to register for the race. And then he ran the Badwater for the seventh time.
Parker has a computer which has four monitors attached to it, providing him with the ability to see an enormous amount of applications running simultaneously. It is this desire to see that has manifested itself both in his work and his hobbies.
Parker loves to take photographs, and his photos have appeared on the covers of scientific journals and textbooks.
He has also developed a new form of microscope, the video-rate two-photon microscope, which has transformed the landscape of immunology.
Six years ago, Parker was ruminating over how to best use microscopic technology to see the functions of the brain. Until this time, technology only allowed for a computer-generated image to appear after a delay. In effect, microscopes could take pictures but not allow for real time visuals at the cellular level. Using existing microscopy technology, Parker developed the first two-photon microscope that allows visuals of the cellular level in real time.
In collaboration with Dr. Michael Cahalan, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at UCI, Parker applied the two-photon microscope to the field of immunology, and the results were remarkable. For the first time, humans were able to see into intact lymphoid organs and the interaction of T-cells and B-cells against pathogens. Their research has been used to investigate vaccine administration. They intend to expand its use in the study of autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes.
While his scientific achievements have set him apart, Parker is from inauspicious beginnings. He grew up in the North East of England, in a small town called Darlington, whose only claim to notoriety is that it had the world’s first train and railroad.
His love for nature drew him toward a college group of rock climbers who left for the mountains every weekend. Initially he went with the group as a means to leave the bustling city. While they rock climbed, he went for runs and hikes.
He remembers thinking, “Why are these people spending all day on this one little rock in the shade when they could be out hiking in these beautiful mountains?”
It was not long before a member of the group convinced him to try mountain climbing. His first experience was disastrous. It was months before he tried again. As a beginner, one climbs behind a leader, and is attached to the rock by rope. By his second climb, Ian got to lead. As the leader there are no securities, only the holds you maintain with your feet and hands. For Ian, the danger was the thrill.
His love of nature still leads him toward remote locales to get photographs of beautiful rock formations, birds drinking from pools, the sun rising over mountains, or the light effect that the sun produces upon a waterfall which visually turns the falling water into fire. His love of nature beckoned him away from major city marathons and toward ultramarathons that take place on desert and mountain trails.
His love of nature was the catalyst for his first love and obsession, rock climbing.
His love of nature facilitates the creative spark he uses when investigating science, “From the point of view as a professor, as a place to do science [Southern California] is the perfect environment,” Parker said.
“Irvine is not in a wilderness but it’s not that far to get out; Joshua Tree is an easy day trip. Here in Irvine, just in the back of my house, I can be up in the Laguna Coast Wilderness in 45 minutes, and it’s a genuine little bit of wilderness,” Parker said.
“It’s nice to go away and get out, and be in a completely different environment. And while I run, I often do think about science, and often the good ideas come when you’re just out there,” Parker said. “It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, your legs are on autopilot and you have time to think without distractions. There is some synergy there.”