TMCnet Feature
September 01, 2020

Executive Spotlight: Constantine Stratakis, Senior Investigator at the National Institutes of Health

Medical researcher and physician scientist Constantine Stratakis has been working in the field since 1994. He earned his medical degree and doctorate in endocrinology from Kapodistrian University of Athens. He is the Senior Investigator at The National Institutes of Health, co-editor-in-chief of Hormone & Metabolic Research (HMR) and Molecular & Cellular Endocrinology (MCE), and former president of the Society for Pediatric Research (SPR, 2018-2019). Despite the increase in administrative responsibilities, he still makes time in his schedule to work as a family physician because he values the personal connection that comes with helping patients on an individual basis.

His work in the laboratory and research settings includes examining endocrine cell growth, genes, and tumors. The lab that Dr. Stratakis runs is responsible for discovering a number of genes, including his personal discovery of PRKAR1A – the gene responsible for Carney complex. This has led to a number of awards, including the 2009 Ernst Oppenheimer Award from the Endocrine Society and the 1999 Pharmacia-Endocrine Society Award for Excellence.

To further the future of medical research, he is deeply dedicated to training and teaching academic scholars with an interest in the field. He personally trains medical students and travels to present as a visiting professor at campuses all over the world, including Harvard University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His lab has worked with over 150 students from various countries to create a growing family that focuses on scientific research. His work in educating youth led to his receipt of the 2015 NICHD Mentor Award.

What makes you get up in the morning?

The biggest joy of doing my type of work is analysing the mysterious, being excited by the discoveries, and coming up with the next questions. Yes, answers are important, but it is the questions and curiosity that excite me more than the answers themselves.

I love Einstein’s quote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed.”

To this day, I have at my office hanging over my desk the poster that Dr. J. Aidan Carney gave me when we started working together back in 1994, with Albert Szent-Gyorgyi’s saying: “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.”

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

I start with exercise and a very light breakfast, during which I update myself on the local, national, and international news. This is also the time when I catch up on important medical and other research discoveries by scanning journals such as Nature and Cell. Then, I go to NIH, where I usually stay until late in the evening, sometimes well into the night.

My daily reading of research and medical literature is one of my greatest “secrets.” Most scientists find it hard to keep updated on their fields, but for me, it has been part of my daily routine ever since I started my career.

During the day, keeping an eye on what is important is perhaps the most significant advice that I can give to anybody who wants to be productive; prioritization requires that you identify what is important. Often, the days are chaotic, with too many demands arriving at all times. Identifying what is important, what can not wait versus what can wait, is the secret behind daily productivity, I think.

What advice would you give your younger self?

When I entered early, at a rather young age, the field of academia, there was a certain anxiety regarding whether academic success would come. It turns out that success and recognition come naturally as a result of hard work and commitment to one’s goals and to others.

Tell us something that almost nobody agrees with you on.

As an immigrant myself from Greece, a culture and civilization that early on recognized the need to experience new things, see new places, and experience new feelings, as well as the freedom to be wherever you wanted to be, I am a great advocate of the idea of a world without borders – the ability to travel, go, and live anywhere at any time, without any restrictions. This is something that is becoming increasingly more difficult, and unfortunately, most people with whom I have discussed this do not think that a world without borders is possible; they consider this idea of mine a utopia.

As a doctor, what is the one thing that you recommend everyone do?

I am always amazed at the simplest thing that patients can do to improve their health that they do not do and that most doctors ignore: get a good night’s sleep! It’s absolutely important and so simple! I would argue that more than a third of the modern world’s illness can be curtailed by simply getting better sleep.

Most people would agree that good sleep improves mood, fights fatigue, and prevents accidents. However, most people, including doctors, do not know that good sleep is also essential for a well-functioning immune system (which, in turn, protects one from cancer and infections), for normal memory and executive function, and to prevent cognitive decline. I would argue that good sleep is more important for health and well-being than exercise and physical activity because of its wide-ranging effects; yet most doctors discuss physical activity with their patients but not sleep hygiene.

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