Going to Extremes: Feature on Ian Parker

January 3, 2010

Few people could match the intensity and perseverance of UC Irvine neurobiologist Ian Parker.

Maybe they’re not passionate enough about photography to lie in puddles, drive thousands of miles, scale sheer cliffs, sleep outside in the cold, fight altitude sickness and rise hours before the sun. Maybe they’re not so bent on studying cells that they’d build their own microscopes. Maybe they lack the kind of resolve it takes to run 100-plus miles through a scorching desert.

Or maybe they’re just not that crazy.

“There’s an inner drive, and I don’t know where it comes from,” says Parker, professor of neurobiology & behavior. “It’s just something inside that compels me to do things like hard rock climbs or these insane runs.”

Perhaps the craziest thing he does is the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile footrace through Death Valley in July, when the thermometer can top 130 degrees. Parker has competed in Badwater seven times, once finishing in just under 48 hours — a full 12 hours before the 60-hour limit.

He prepares for the race by baking in a homemade sauna, a closet equipped with two portable heaters and a meat thermometer where he sweats it out at temperatures as high as 160 degrees for up to 45 minutes.

“I think he’s more than a little bit bonkers, but he’s certainly very determined,” says his wife, Dr. Anne Tournay, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at UCI. “He had major surgery about three years ago and started training for Badwater a few days later by walking laps around the bedroom. I was surprised he didn’t wear out the carpet.”

In the course of grueling marathons and solo runs, Parker has encountered a legendary ghost in the Scottish Highlands, a bighorn sheep that served as his pacer through the Grand Canyon and, after 40 hours without sleep during Badwater, talking pretzel-stick men — though he suspects those were a hallucination triggered by snacks his support team provided.

Sometimes during a race I’ll ask myself, ‘Why am I here?’ It’s the challenge of doing something hard.

“Sometimes during a race I’ll ask myself, ‘Why am I here?’ It’s the challenge of doing something hard,” he says. “Not many people in the world can do this — or would want to.”

That same tenacity has made Parker a renowned researcher at UCI. A native of England, he was elected last year as a Fellow of The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, for his contributions to the understanding of how cells in the nervous system communicate. His work sheds light on conditions in which cell signaling is disrupted, such as Alzheimer’s disease, immune system disorders and even migraines.

“My research doesn’t have a single focus; it can be applied to several different areas. The link between them is the technology,” Parker says. “For instance, we built a multiphoton microscope to look at neurons in the brain that turned out to be useful for looking at cells in the immune system. We can watch how cells interact in lymph nodes. We can view inside the lungs and study diseases like pneumonia. We can see things no one has seen before.”

That’s typical of Parker, who likes to break away from the pack, whether running, researching or taking photographs. He travels to remote locations worldwide with his camera. His pictures of unusual rock formations, ancient ruins, celestial events and other natural phenomena have appeared on the covers of textbooks and scientific journals and are featured in his Web gallery, Evanescent Light.

I like seeing things under conditions where people ordinarily don’t see them.

“I try to capture the spirit, the emotion of a place,” Parker says.

He’ll climb mountains and scale boulders to snap a hidden waterfall or cave, calculating the best light with an astronomer’s precision. He once spent a freezing night in the White Mountains of California and navigated a rock-strewn hillside in the dark just to photograph the world’s oldest living organisms — bristlecone pines — at dawn.

“To get a good photo, you have to suffer a bit,” he says. “I like seeing things under conditions where people ordinarily don’t see them.”

Parker is planning a photographic tour of Bolivia and another Badwater race next summer. Will he ever stop pushing himself?

“Sometimes I worry this inner drive might go away and I’ll lie in bed until 10 a.m.,” he says. “Doing can be very rewarding. You get up at 4 a.m., and you’re the only person standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon when the sun comes up, and it’s beautiful. Or you cross the finish line after running 135 miles. It’s different from the normal, everyday experience. You feel alive.”

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