Researcher devotes career to understanding the causes of alcoholism

Dr. Marc Schuckit, Photo/Jon Clark
Dr. Marc Schuckit, Photo/Jon Clark

By Arthur Lightbourn

Contributor

Local resident Marc Schuckit knew from an early age that he not only wanted to become a physician, but most likely wanted to pursue psychiatry.

“The psychiatry part was: I loved novels, I loved history, and I loved people stories. And in psychiatry you’re dealing with people stories…and you’re dealing with people based on time as opposed to procedures.”

For example, Schuckit said, “If you were seeing me, I would see you based on 45 minutes. You have booked me for a period of time to talk about you and what’s concerning you.

“If I were a surgeon, figuratively, I might see you for 10 minutes dealing with the procedure I’m about to do.” But, as a psychiatrist,

“I like your story more than I like doing surgery on your elbow.”

Today, Schuckit, now 66 and a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at UCSD, is a world leader in the research study of alcoholism, particularly the importance of genetic and environmental influences on alcohol dependence.

And, for 30 years, as a clinician, he directed the alcohol and drug treatment program and treated patients at San Diego’s VA Hospital, UCSD’s teaching hospital.

His numerous awards include the President’s Award from the American Psychiatric Association in 1972, the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Research Society on Alcoholism in 1993, the Middleton Award in 1997, and the Lifetime Achievement Gold Medal Award from the Society of Biological Psychiatry in 2005.

And how do you get to be a world leader in the research of alcoholism?

“Persistence,” he said. “Research is a funny business. By its very nature, you open yourself up for criticism. You’re competing with people for scarce dollars to support research...I am proudest that when criticized I learned from it and didn’t say, ‘Ah, I shouldn’t be looking at it anymore.’”

We interviewed Schuckit in his office near the UCSD campus where he heads a team of 11 researchers.

Schuckit is definitely a detail man. He chooses his words thoughtfully, and, even after some 40 years in research, exhibits an obvious excitement and enthusiasm for his work.

Physically, he’s tall and lean. He exercises regularly, scuba dives in tropical waters at least once a year, and is “almost a vegetarian” because of “feeling bad for the animals.”

His father was a butcher.

Schuckit was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisc., along with two sisters. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Romania.

He earned his undergraduate degree in premedical science from the University of Wisconsin in 1964; his medical degree from Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, in 1968; followed by an internship at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, and residencies in psychiatry at Washington University and UCSD, completed in 1972.

“When I went to medical school, I had no idea that I would do research,” he revealed “but I needed to help support myself so the first day of medical school I looked for a part-time job.”

The job he found was as an interviewer in a research study of 30-year-old men. “And among the problems you are likely to see among 30-year-old men, alcohol and drugs are way up there.”

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