When he was an undergraduate student at Harvard University in 1958, Roger Detels spent three months as an exchange student in Kanazawa, Japan. As one of the first few Americans in Kanazawa after the war, Detels — today a UCLA distinguished professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases — still recalls with amusement many of his experiences with his Japanese host family.
By Wendy Soderburg
"I arrive in Kanazawa and my family takes me around the house, and they’re talking to me in Japanese, of course," said Detels, who had studied as much Japanese as he could on the boat trip from Hawaii to Kanazawa. "And I could tell that they were apologizing for how small the rooms were."
Wanting to say something nice, Detels said, "Ah, kirai desu." He got no reaction. The same thing happened with each room. Finally, Detels discovered that he and the older daughter both spoke a little bit of German. "And what had happened was, I meant to say, ‘Ah, kirei desu,’ which means, ‘It’s beautiful.’ But I said, ‘kirai,’ which means, ‘I don’t like it.’ "
He laughed heartily at the memory. "We managed to survive that one," he said.
That first experience in Japan actually turned out to be the first of many Asian adventures for Detels, who received his B.A. from Harvard later that same year. He went on to New York University where, while working toward an M.D. that he earned in 1962, he served his elective period at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit (NAMRU-2) in Taipei, Taiwan.
"That experience made me realize that one-on-one medicine was not very efficient; that if I really wanted to have an impact, I should get into the area of epidemiology and public health," Detels said. "I realized that was going to have a much greater impact than seeing patients one at a time."
While in Taipei, Detels worked with Professor Thomas Grayston, who had organized a department of preventive medicine and started a residency program in epidemiology at the University of Washington. Detels completed the residency program and also earned an M.S. from the University of Washington in 1966.
After graduation, Detels was drafted into the U.S. Navy and requested to be sent back to NAMRU-2 in Taipei, where he lived for three years with his wife, Mimi, and their two sons, Martin and Edward. During his tour of duty he did research in the Philippines, Bangkok and Taiwan, field-testing the rubella vaccine and studying tropical diseases. Once his Navy service was fulfilled, Detels took a position as a medical officer for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Two years later, in 1970, Detels joined the UCLA faculty as an associate professor in what is now UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. "When I got here, there was only one faculty member in epidemiology, and he promptly retired upon my arrival," Detels said, laughing. As a young professor, Detels quickly learned how to teach courses and set about recruiting new colleagues and expanding the department, which today has approximately 40 faculty, including in-residence and adjunct appointments.
In 1981, Detels started a study of AIDS in young homosexual men in Los Angeles and, in 1983, he formed a collaborative study with centers at three other institutions: Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Johns Hopkins. This study, known as the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS), is still going strong some 30 years later.
Detels also runs the UCLA/Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program for health professionals from China, Southeast Asia and India, who come here to earn advanced degrees in epidemiology. "But I insist that they go back to their home countries to do the field work for their dissertations," Detels said. "I feel that doing their dissertations in the United States is irrelevant for them. One of the requirements is that they can’t get into the program unless they agree to go back to their home countries."
Besides currently serving as adviser to 15-20 doctoral students, teaching two graduate courses and an introductory public health course for 280 undergraduates, and delivering guest lectures, Detels is also senior editor of the recently published book, "Public Health in East and Southeast Asia: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century" (UC Press, 2012).
Said Professor of Epidemiology Zuo-Feng Zhang of his colleague, "It is hard to identify any faculty who has had such outstanding academic achievements as Dr. Detels at UCLA, in terms of his research (as a pioneer in many different areas such as HIV/AIDS, air pollution and cancer) and his lectureship. In addition, he has trained more than 300 health professionals, including over 100 Ph.D. graduates in epidemiology."
Added Zhang, who nominated Detels for the Faculty Research Lectureship, "The UCLA Academic Senate has made a great decision to choose Dr. Detels from a very competitive pool of candidates."
Of the honor, Detels said that he was thankful to UCLA for giving him the opportunity and the support to conduct his research.
"A lot of [thanks] goes to my fellow faculty and my students. One of the things I’ve tried to teach students — and this is particularly difficult with students from Asia — is to tell me I’m crazy," said Detels, who encourages them to argue or question research on a collegial basis. "I’m reasonably successful. They don’t let me get away with anything; they ask me questions and they demand an explanation."
This give-and-take, Detels said, has resulted in a circle of colleagues in the medical school and in the school of public health and epidemiology "who are constantly contributing ideas or arguing with ideas. I can have bull sessions with them. That is the way research advances, and it’s a very exciting process."
That Detels’ work satisfies and sustains him is quite clear.
"You know, I’m 76 years old and I haven’t retired. And the reason I haven’t retired is because I revel in the collegiality and excitement of research and teaching."
Detels will present his Faculty Research Lecture, "Hang In and Have Smart Friends: The Road to HIV Resistance," on Nov. 15 at 3 p.m. in Schoenberg Hall. For more information, visit this website.