October 2018 – Petar Lenert

Varied definitions of home—where you grew up, where your family still lives, where you spent most of your life, where you live now—can often all point to the same location. For many, particularly those whose homes have experienced history-textbook-worthy, capital-E Events, some of those definitions of home can perhaps only exist in memory. Petar Lenert, MD, MSc, PhD, Clinical Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Immunology, had this question raised more acutely than most of us, which may make his answer all the richer.

Turmoil thwarts ambition
As a boy in Yugoslavia, Dr. Lenert seemed destined for the Olympics like his father, who had been a track-and-field competitor, three-time captain of the country’s national athletic team in the 1950s, and later an Olympics-level coach. Young Petar spent a lot of his time swimming in a pool built and fed by the river it was built alongside, training for his moment on the world stage. It was after one of those training sessions before a major meet that he became ill, “probably paratyphus,” Dr. Lenert said. He begged his parents to compete anyway, and even took second place in the 100-meter butterfly, but then spent the next month in bed. “That was a crucial moment for me.” Until then he believed he would pursue mathematics, but the mystery of his illness, he says, switched his interest to medicine. “There was nothing else I was interested in after that.”

Dr. Lenert excelled in medical school at the University of Novi Sad, which he quickly followed by earning Master’s and PhD degrees in Immunology. He completed a combined residency and fellowship in Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology in the mid-1980s. Then a scientific and exchange program for former Eastern Bloc-residents offered Dr. Lenert the opportunity to come to San Diego for research for 18 months from 1988 to 1990. “I was lucky to get that,” he said. He worked there with Dr. Maurizio Zanetti, whom he called “the best mentor of my life.”

The research went well and his mentor found him funding to stay another year, but Dr. Lenert turned it down to return home, to defend his PhD thesis and take a faculty position in Novi Sad. “When you are living on soft money versus a stable academic position, I didn’t think that would be best for us.” But after returning home, he said, he regretted his decision. The nation began to fall into chaos, dividing along ethnic lines. “We immediately started working on how to get back.” This turned out to be difficult once the United States placed sanctions on Yugoslavia in 1992.

A circuitous route
Although the United States was barred to Dr. Lenert and his family, Canada was not. He and his wife, a researcher as well, took positions at the University of Montreal. Dr. Lenert became director of the Laboratory of Immunoregulation there while still maintaining an academic appointment in Yugoslavia. This became a dangerous position for Dr. Lenert, who strongly opposed the actions of then-dictator and war criminal Slobodan Milošević. Dr. Lenert joined with a few other faculty members to sign a public petition against him and his regime. Once done, he said, “I didn’t stick around to find out” what would happen next.

It was in Canada that Dr. Lenert met Dr. Art Krieg, who was then on faculty at Iowa as a rheumatologist. Dr. Krieg had founded a company developing an immunotherapy that had a branch in Ottawa. He and Dr. Lenert hit it off. Dr. Krieg introduced him to Dr. Robert Ashman, then Division Director at Iowa. Dr. Ashman says he admired Dr. Lenert immediately. “Begin with his determination to do good research despite threats from the Yugoslav government, his willingness to essentially start over climbing the academic ladder, his excellent research contributions to our understanding of how the innate immune system works, and his contagious enthusiasm for teaching fellows and residents. Then pause a moment to consider what life would be like if you had to lecture, write grants, and publish papers in your fifth language! It’s a pretty awesome set of accomplishments!” Needless to say, Dr. Ashman began working to bring him to Iowa.

“I didn’t know where Iowa was,” Dr. Lenert joked. “I only knew about the Iowa caucus.” Once here, though, it was an easy move for him to make. “I realized that this is a wonderful place with a good university, wonderful people happy to help you develop your skills, and I never regretted my decision.” Hired for his research skills, Dr. Lenert, Dr Ashman, and Dr. Krieg got to work right away doing “wonderful research.” They earned a patent for their work on TLR agonists and antagonists, characterizing pathways in a series of short oligonucleotides. And Dr. Lenert began his own work, uncovering the role of B cells and their reactivity to nucleotides as well as a smaller subset called marginal zone B cells.

The tripartite mission
useDSC_0042Though hired to do research, Dr. Ashman knew Dr. Lenert could and wanted to do much more. He opened a faculty line and Dr. Lenert began to see patients again, something he had not done since he left Yugoslavia for good. Seeing patients is important to Dr. Lenert. “If you are a physician and your interest in medicine is genuine, you have to be as close to the patient as possible. That’s where you transfer your knowledge, your enthusiasm, and your understanding. Taking you away from that, just putting you in a lab, it’s not the same thing.”

From this idea it is a short jump for Dr. Lenert to cite the student as an essential component of this work as well. “And you need to transfer that same knowledge to the new generation. There is no other area such as medicine that is as dependent on good mentoring.” This is part of what he loves about the University of Iowa. “What we do well here, our interactions with students, exceeds several times over what I had as a medical student. We really care here about the students and how good they will be. Not only as practitioners, but as people, as good citizens.”

Those who work with him recognize his passion for education fairly immediately. “He is the epitome of the word ‘intensity,’” Immunology Division Director Dr. Scott Vogelgesang said. “When he decides to do something, it is always with 100% effort. He has an insatiable intellectual curiosity but cares equally about the people around him, including patients and his colleagues.” A former immunology fellow and now colleague Dr. Svetlana Dolovčak also admires Dr. Lenert’s passion for the work. “He is always eager to help patients. He enjoys solving challenging cases and sharing knowledge, of which he has plenty to spare.”

That excitement is visible, but coupled with humility, as he quickly states that complex cases do not always have easy answers. Which is where he returns to the subject of research. “It can provide you with such a feeling of heart and satisfaction when you plan a good experiment, when you get the results that answer your question, but also generate ten more questions.” He emphasizes the importance of each of these elements, balancing the three parts of the academic mission. “That is also my life philosophy,” he says.

Beyond the work
Dr. Lenert beams when he speaks of how he met his wife. “She was probably the first person who helped me understand the beauty of the immune system.” She was a little ahead of him in a similar program for her Master’s thesis at the University of Belgrade. On most people’s first dates, he says, they go to the movies, but he and his wife talked about autoimmune diseases. “That’s how we became close to each other and that’s how we stayed 35 years down the road.”

They have two sons, now grown. One followed Dr. Lenert’s path and is a rheumatologist and an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. The other, Dr. Lenert says, “may have picked up my mathematics gene,” and is an assistant professor in engineering at the University of Michigan. Dr. Lenert enjoys making the drive to Lexington to see his grandson as often as he can.

As for his country of birth, there is plenty that Dr. Lenert misses. “I miss summers on the Adriatic coast, skiing on the slopes of Serbia, the mountains and lakes in Slovenia.” But, he is quick to emphasize, that was a different time in his life. “I’m an Iowan now.” And we are the luckier for it.

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