Alumni

Julia Indik: How a Childhood Longing for Space Adventure Led to a Career in Cardiology

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

When she was 5, growing up in New York City, Julia Indik wanted to be an astronaut – something a lot of kids want to be. But over time, her longing for space adventure evolved into a passion for math and physics, and that eventually led her to the UA College of Medicine, where she received her MD in 1996.

Today Dr. Indik is a cardiologist with the UA Department of Medicine. A Sarver Heart Center member and specialist in heart arrhythmias, she holds the Flinn Foundation and American Heart Association Endowed Chair in Electrophysiology. She was promoted July 1 to full professor.

It’s been a remarkable journey.

After getting her bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Princeton, she earned her PhD in physics, with a focus on astrophysics, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Astronomy was just kind of nifty,” she explained, “and one thing led to another.”

More precisely, her studies at M.I.T. led her to the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, where she was a post-doc research associate from 1986 to 1989. She followed that with a two-year, informal post-doc with the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab.

It was work she loved. But in graduate school, and during her time at the UA, she realized that even while probing such mysteries as the dynamics of galaxies and the movement of planets – topics she explored with her mentor, astronomer Simon White – this was not for her a sustainable pursuit.

That the UA also had a medical school was not lost on Dr. Indik when she decided to come here for her post-doc. Before she finished her work at Steward, she decided she wanted to go to medical school. The decisive moment came when she was expecting her first baby.

“It was the first time I had to see a doctor on a regular basis,” Dr. Indik recalled. “My obstetrician was such a fabulous doctor, and so sensitive to my concerns. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, if I could just do that.’”

In 1991, she was admitted to the UA College of Medicine. She took an extra year to do research in radiation oncology, through the college’s medical student research program. It was work that she enjoyed. She and her husband, UA mathematician Robert Indik, developed a computer-based model to predict heating in tumors that are treated by radiation therapy.

Their experience led to two publications. It also convinced her she wanted her medical career to include more interaction with patients.

At first drawn to ob-gyn, then neurology and neurosurgery, it was when she did her internal medicine rotation that she found “all the fun stuff – puzzle solving, thinking about the whole picture, putting all the facts together to figure out what’s going on with the patient.”

One of her mentors was Frank I. Marcus, MD, former chief of cardiology in the Department of Medicine, and widely known for his research in heart arrhythmias and his pioneering work with cardiac ablation.

“He really paved the way for me to get into electrophysiology,” Dr. Indik said. “It’s a field that involves a fair bit of physics, so my physics background came in very handy.”

Dr. Indik also is director of the Department of Medicine's Cardiovascular Disease Fellowship Program, which currently trains 16 fellows. She graduated from the program in 2002, and followed that with a one-year fellowship in electrophysiology. 

On being promoted to professor of medicine, Dr. Indik said, “That’s a dream come true.” She is mindful of how important her mentors were to her, and welcomes medical students seeking information and advice.

“I want to give back to my college,” she said. “I am delighted to give any advice I can when a student comes to me. I try to encourage all those who seek my advice, but I especially want to see women strive for what they want.

“I tell all students, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do.’”

One last question: What does an astrophysicist/cardiologist do in her spare time? Probe the night sky through a backyard telescope?

In her case, no.

“I know the Big Dipper,” she said with a laugh. “That’s about it.”

By Jane Erikson