Three for the 21st Century : A Scientist, a Musician and an English Teacher. What They’ve Got in Common Are Vision, Enthusiasm and Staying Power. : Fast Forward: UCLA Nobel Laureate Louis J. Ignarro Helped Bring the World Viagra----By 2010 He Expects to Have Heart Disease on the Run.

Carolyn Ramsay is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

Mr. Louis J. Ignarro can’t wait. The guy who used to blast over the asphalt in flame-spewing dragsters and frenzy his pulse with competitive speed skating can’t wait to walk to his office at the UCLA School of Medicine at 5 each morning. He can’t wait to read about new drugs being developed in an explosion of research that he helped set off (does the name Viagra ring a bell?). And he can’t wait--he really can’t wait--to build a heart institute where scientists and physicians can catch up with his vision for the new millennium: driving America’s most voracious killer into a hasty retreat. “By 2010, I think we can cut way back on deaths due to cardiovascular disease,” the 57-year-old pharmacologist says in a raspy voice tinged with a trace of New York. “That’s my goal.”

Last year, Ignarro’s urgent shoves against his field’s scalpel-sharp cutting edge led to a Nobel Prize in medicine. And still he’s in a hurry. Still he works 14-hour days, researching, experimenting and coaxing yet another classroom of students to sprint toward the future for which he refuses to wait.

“Very little has been accomplished,” Ignarro says, pausing for a moment in his laboratory to explain his impatience. “The discoveries have been made. Now we need to take advantage of the discoveries to develop better methods of diagnosis and better methods of treatment.”

Ignarro’s preoccupation with 2010 is a new thing, a byproduct of his Nobel Prize. Even before that, though, he was driven--and by the same unlikely muse. Indeed, if Nobel laureates were like their Oscar-winning counterparts, Ignarro might well have gone weepy and gushed: And most of all, I’d like to thank a miraculous little molecule without which I wouldn’t be here today, nitric oxide!

Nitric oxide--NO to the cognoscenti--is most famous for contributing to the creation of smog. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, Ignarro and two far-flung scientists (Dr. Ferid Murad in Houston and Dr. Robert Furchgott in New York) performed independent experiments showing it to be a naturally occurring gas in the human body. This new research revealed that nitric oxide performs an array of biological feats, such as helping the body to regulate blood pressure and blood flow. That any gas--let alone a common air pollutant--performed key functions in the blood was a revolutionary idea. Says Jonathan Stamler, a leading researcher at Duke University: “It’s hard for me to recall a factor in biology that has had as broad an impact on cell and organ systems as nitric oxide.”


Ignarro did his early work on the molecule at Tulane University in New Orleans. When he took his position at UCLA in 1985, he swiftly set up his lab, hired a staff and began experiments to prove a hunch. Nitric oxide and another molecule had been observed modifying cardiovascular function. Ignarro suspected the chemicals were one and the same. “It took a year and a half to prove it and I stayed quiet . . . . I didn’t want anybody to find it and publish it before we did,” Ignarro says, wincing at the memory. “I almost developed an ulcer.”

In July 1986, Ignarro and Furchgott each announced independently, at the same medical conference, that the two molecules were actually nitric oxide. To Ignarro, that pivotal moment was a springboard. Working with other researchers at UCLA, he went on to study the effect of nitric oxide on penile tissue, laying the groundwork for a new anti-impotency drug. The Scientist magazine called Viagra “the most successful drug introduction in history.” Ignarro believes it broke the taboo against impotence, which affects 9% of men worldwide.

Last year, in announcing its $976,000 prize to Ignarro, Murad and Furchgott, the Nobel Committee praised their discoveries for unleashing “an avalanche of research activities in many different laboratories around the world.” The committee called Ignarro’s experiments a “brilliant series of analyses.”


A few decades back, Ignarro’s Long Island neighbors probably took a different view of his work. His interest in science, Ignarro says, began in his parents’ garage, where his boyhood “experiments” often ended with a bang. This fascination with explosions led to another pursuit: drag racing. After joining a club called the Midnighters, Ignarro raced professionally for several years, winning about a dozen championship races and setting the speed record in his classification.

Ignarro’s father, a carpenter who grew up in Naples, Italy, and immigrated to Long Island, wanted desperately for his oldest boy to become a doctor or lawyer. So there is a certain poetry in the way this son of an Italian immigrant learned he had received the Nobel Prize.

Ignarro was flying to Naples for a speaking engagement when the award was announced (“On Columbus Day,” his mother points out). His colleagues arranged for military police to meet him on the runway and for a motorcade to whisk him off to an impromptu party and presentation of civic medals by the mayor.

The attention moved and overwhelmed Ignarro, who, despite his urgency, is a very unpretentious and deliberate man. Which is not to say that he fits the stereotype of the aloof research scientist. A huge football fan, he often wears a Bruins tie with his meticulously pressed khakis. And he’s so popular with medical students that he has won 10 teaching awards for the pharmacology class he conducts five days a week at 8 a.m. Despite his frenetic schedule, Ignarro spends two hours a day preparing for his class. And, naturally, he takes time outside of class to answer lingering questions, former students say.

Aaron Jacobs, a doctoral student in Ignarro’s laboratory, watches his mentor and shudders to think that his own life as a professor could be as fast-paced. “His schedule,” Jacobs says, “worries me.”

Perhaps the only recorded example of Ignarro’s moving slowly involves his new wife, Dr. Sharon Williams Ignarro, 42. She had been his student. But he waited until she finished medical school before contacting her by e-mail. “She was much older than the other students in the class and we did not date. We did nothing, absolutely nothing,” Ignarro says, with the timing of a natural comedian. “I just stared.”

Before receiving the Nobel Prize, Ignarro had considered changing careers. Now he feels the gravity of his new status. At 57, he is a relative youngster among Nobel laureates--and the first at UCLA’s medical school. “Receiving this recognition for all the good work I’ve done made me realize it would be foolish to get away from it now,” he says. “In trying to understand how nitric oxide works, many of us have made new discoveries pertaining to the possible causes of high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis and so on.”

Opinion is divided in the cardiovascular research community about Ignarro’s 2010 deadline for major breakthroughs. “He’s right on,” says Dr. Robert Kloner, director of research at Good Samaritan Hospital’s heart institute. But Duke’s Stamler warns that curing one heart ailment often opens the door for others. “There was no accelerated transplant arteriosclerosis before there was transplantation.” What Ignarro envisions is a $40-million cardiovascular research institute at UCLA where the world’s top researchers and heart doctors will work together. Aside from finding new applications for the discoveries involving nitric oxide, Ignarro is also eager to build on gene therapies. By 2003, he says, the entire structure of the human genome will be mapped out. A few years beyond that researchers will be able to identify the basis of genetic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. “So, by 2005 we should be able to treat every known genetic disorder. You’re going to see. The first 10 years of the next millennium will be the magic bullet [decade] for drugs and therapeutics,” Ignarro says.

At the moment there’s a more pressing problem: where in his office to display his new prize. “It’s mind-boggling,” he says, staring at the gold medal. “I still don’t believe it sometimes, you know?”

Still, his colleagues have taken precautions to assure that Ignarro isn’t immobilized by his sudden fame. Planted in a corner of his lab is a life-size cutout of the professor. A cartoon bubble has him saying: “Nobel Schnobel, Get back to work.”

organizations such as the precursor of the International Assn. of Jazz Educators began advocating for what many viewed as an endangered art form. An institutional infrastructure formed. “The savior of jazz has been jazz education,” declares pianist Billy Taylor, a pioneer whose national Jazzmobile project has been training teachers and instructing kids for more than three decades. Berg agrees. The jazz educators group, of which he once served as president, has nourished many of the best players to emerge in the last 10 to 15 years, including Marcus Roberts and Roy Hargrove. So it’s a shock when he says that jazz education, for most of its history, has been a pedagogical disaster. The problem, he asserts, is an overreliance on modes and scales at the expense of an old-fashioned jazzman’s trick: listening.

This misguided approach, he and others say, yields technically fluent musicians who often lack the individuality essential to great art. “One of the mistakes that has happened in jazz education is that we’re not getting enough innovators, people with something unique to say,” observes Kenny Burrell, the renowned guitarist and founder of UCLA’s jazz studies department.

Berg and other reformers have pushed hard for a new approach, detailed in Berg’s 1990 book “Jazz Improvisation: The Goal-Note Method,” which incorporates more organic teaching techniques and more playing. Berg believes jazz education would benefit greatly from an overall shakeup of music instruction. “It’s time to drop the bomb and start over,” he proclaims. “I think music education in the next 20 years will totally reevaluate itself in terms of, is it experiential enough, are we throwing too many facts into people’s brains so that they’re not getting to play enough and replicate enough?”

Berg envisions fewer classes and greater emphasis on the creative music-making process. While pleased that campus jazz concerts are attracting more classical students than ever, he wants familiarity with jazz to become a requirement, not an option. “I’ve fought hard for respect--I’ve played classical recitals [at USC]--and I think we’ve got it,” says Berg, recalling the days when his students were barred from practicing on USC’s grand pianos. “That fight is going on everywhere. But jazz is a very important function in musical higher education. ... The world of music has changed so much that there’s no symphony player, no piano teacher out there who can afford not to understand jazz, popular music, improvisation.”

A degree in jazz studies may carry a certain social cachet, but it doesn’t do much to impress career counselors or console parents. So each fall, Berg lays it on the line. “What I tell them is, if you can’t imagine yourself happy doing anything else, then this is for you. If you can imagine yourself happy doing something else, do it. Because the very fact that you can even imagine it means that there’s room to vacillate, and there’s no room to vacillate if you’re gonna try and make it in this field.”