Robert DeHaan remembered for advances in science, ethics, education

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Nov. 5, 2013

Professor Emeritus Robert DeHaan, whose intellect, energy and research enriched three different disciplines at Emory University, died Tuesday, Oct. 29 of complications from pneumonia.

DeHaan, who was 82, came to Emory in 1973 to study the intricacies of the human heart, including cutting-edge research into the electrophysiology of heartbeats. An acclaimed cell biologist, he is also widely remembered for teaching embryology in Emory’s School of Medicine, one of the first classes required of every medical student.

But his career and intellectual curiosity were far-reaching. Following his personal interests, DeHaan also helped found the Emory Center for Ethics and in the 1990s switched academic gears, focusing upon a major initiative to help improve science curriculum in elementary schools.

His research career spanned five decades, including positions on faculties of the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Embryology, the Johns Hopkins University, and both Emory’s School of Medicine and College of Arts and Sciences.

Robert DeHaan

Born in Chicago, DeHaan was raised in California, where he attended UCLA. Graduate work took him to Amsterdam, then to UCLA to complete a doctorate, where his research focused upon cardiac electrophysiology, recalled his wife, Marianne Scharbo-DeHaan, who served as an associate professor in Emory's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing from 1982 to 2000 before completing her career with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For many Emory medical students, DeHaan provided a critical — and memorable —introduction to embryology. "Because he was often (a med student’s) first professor, and a wonderful teacher, we often found that when we would go out to dinner, these doctors would come up and say, ‘Dr. DeHaan, I still remember that the heart starts beating at day 21…,’" Scharbo-DeHaan recalls. "Apparently, that left an impression."

While at Emory, DeHaan was twice named Outstanding Teacher of the Year, in 1987 and 1990. He also received the University’s highest faculty accolade, the Thomas Jefferson Award, in 1998, and the Distinguished Emeritus Award in 2006.

A career built upon heartbeats

Criss Hartzell, a professor of cellular biology in Emory’s School of Medicine, recalls DeHaan’s groundbreaking work in cardiac electrophysiology, "trying to understand more about the ion channels responsible for the excitability of the heart."

Hartzell first met DeHaan at Johns Hopkins University when the professor served on his thesis committee and later encouraged him to come to Emory.

"One of the reasons I came here was that he had put together a fantastic group of researchers who were very interactive — a group he called ‘The Tender Heart Club'," Hartzell recalls.

That collection of colleagues "wound up involved in a program project grant Bob wrote that lasted for about 15 years," he adds. "It was an incredibly exciting time, because we were all working on the same overlapping issues, very cutting edge."

In studying ion channels, DeHaan was exploring "the proteins in the membrane of the heart cell that open and close to allow ions, like sodium, potassium and calcium, to flow through them," Hartzell says. "What determines the heartbeat, basically."

"The heart beats because it’s excitable, and electric currents that flow through the heart determine how the heart beats," he explains. "I think Bob was one of the first people to grow cardiac cells in culture. What was cool was to look at a dish of those cells: you could see individual cells beating in a dish."

 "His research legacy was investigating the embryonic origins of the heartbeat and how the heart cells become synchronized to beat together," Hartzell added.

DeHaan’s contributions to cellular biology were widely recognized. In 1998, he received the first Bruce Alberts Award from the American Society of Cell Biologists for Distinguished Contributions to Science Education, and in 2006 he was awarded the Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Prize from the Society for Developmental Biology.

Branching into ethics, elementary education

By the 1990s, DeHaan’s interests were being drawn in different directions.

Joining faculty from across campus, DeHaan took a founding leadership role in helping to create the Emory Center for Ethics. "He always had a very strong interest in ethical behavior, especially among scientists," says Scharbo-DeHaan.

An area of particular concern was "helping young scientists and medical students think about the ethical issues they would be confronting in their work," recalls Kathy Kinlaw, associate director of the Center for Ethics.

When the Emory Center for Ethics opened, DeHaan served as the first director.  Today, the Center remains an international leader in the exploration of ethics, dedicated to understanding how ethical issues underlie the decisions that shape minds, lives and society.

"He gave tremendous leadership, passion, and his amazing mind to the idea of bringing people together around the realm of ethics," Kinlaw says. "And he never slowed down. Time off was all about reading, learning, brainstorming — he was a constant learner, always writing new articles."

By 1995, DeHaan’s research was again expanding: After noticing how science was being taught in his grandson’s school — primarily through a workbook, not hands-on experiences — DeHaan switched gears. Leaving an acclaimed career in cellular biology, he delved into science education, particularly on the elementary school level.

"He was always interested in teaching," says Scharbo-DeHaan. "Then he became curious about why fewer young people were choosing science as a career, in particular why women weren’t choosing it, and if they did, why they didn’t stay."

Launching a science education project

With a $5.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, DeHaan launched the Elementary Sciences Education Partners (ESEP), offering a "hands-on" science and mathematics curriculum to Atlanta schoolchildren.

Under DeHaan’s leadership, the five-year grant brought inquiry-based instruction to more than 2,100 students in 91 classrooms in Atlanta and DeKalb school districts. The program also linked Emory students with public school teachers to team-teach science exercises.

The ESEP project ran from 1995 to 2000; DeHaan affiliated with Emory's Division of Educational Studies (DES), where he served as the senior science advisor and maintained an active role in assisting with doctoral research and dissertations.

"It was quite a transition," says DES Director Bob Jensen. "Although he was already a Candler Professor (in cellular biology), he became completely engaged in what science looked like in elementary schools."

"Back then, that wasn’t an easy switch," Jensen notes. "One thing I loved about Bob was that he didn’t assume that he knew everything about science education. He was humble about it and learned from the ground up. He set out to change his professional life, and he succeeded."

Karen Falkenberg, an Emory lecturer in educational studies whom DeHaan hired as ESEP program manager, says she will remember him as "an avid reader, who had a keen, inquisitive mind."

Though DeHaan was in his 60s when they worked together, "he had the energy of someone in their 30s," Falkenberg says. "And he used the skills of research and inquiry to continue to question and learn for all the years I knew him."

"His zest for helping people, mentoring them, and always striving to make the world a better place is a hallmark of who Bob was," she adds.

Jensen believes DeHaan will also be remembered for his unyielding intellectual curiosity, accessibility and generosity: "When most people retire, they look forward to relaxing a little bit. But it was as if he was re-energized. Even in retirement, he would be here every day, always doing something related to science education, talking to doctoral students, serving on dissertation committees."

"He truly was a remarkable person and a genuine, sweet, caring individual," Jensen adds. "His passing marks a sad day for Emory."

Preceded in death by his first wife, Virginia S. DeHaan, DeHaan is survived by his son Benjamin DeHaan of Lucca, Italy; daughter Pippit Carlington and grandson Quinn Carlington of Atlanta. He is also survived by Scharbo-DeHaan, his wife of 23 years, and stepchildren Mark (Carrie) Scharbo, Grant (Gina) Scharbo and Dana (Josh) Lieberman, as well as 10 grandchildren.