Looking Back: A Retirement Interview with Dr. Bob Schellenberg

Throughout their diverse and storied careers, UBC Department of Medicine faculty members acquire a wealth of clinical, educational, and leadership knowledge and skills. We value the experience of our retiring faculty and seek to capture some of their valuable insight and wisdom to share with the UBC Department of Medicine community. We hope that our current faculty will find these perspectives useful as they consider their own career paths.

Dr. Bob Schellenberg (He/Him/His)

Professor Emeritus

Department of Medicine/Division of Allergy & Immunology

Vancouver, BC

Dr. Bob Schellenberg was born and raised in Manitoba and accepted his first appointment as an Assistant Professor in the UBC Department of Medicine in 1979.

His research focuses on asthma and allergic inflammation with primary interests in the mechanisms of excessive airway narrowing of asthmatic tissues and the modulation of chemotaxis and apoptosis (programmed cell death) of basophils and eosinophils.

Dr. Schellenberg retired from the UBC Department of Medicine in the Division of Allergy & Immunology in December 2020 to enjoy his other varied passions – including cycling and woodworking.


Are you originally from Vancouver, or did you come to UBC from afar?

I grew up in Manitoba. I got into medical school after the first two years of an undergraduate degree (you could do that then). I don’t have my bachelor’s degree, but I did my medical training in Manitoba and most of my residency there. I completed three years of postdoc at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I moved back to a faculty position at Manitoba for two years before moving to Vancouver and UBC.


What was it that drew you to Vancouver?

I’ve always been partial to the west coast. I got an invitation to come to Vancouver from Jim Hogg and Peter Paré. Both had been recruited by Dr. Dirks, UBC Head of Medicine, and Dr. Hardwick, UBC Head of Pathology, from McGill two years earlier and were starting a new lab. Manitoba tried to convince me to stay and told me it was a wasteland out west, but history has proven otherwise. At the time, it was just a little lab with three investigators and a few technicians. Now it has grown into the HLI (Centre for Heart Lung Innovation)- with complex cardiac and respiratory programs with over 250 people.


What was your first job at UBC?

I started as an assistant professor in the department of medicine. At the time, there was no allergy and immunology division. My clinical duties primarily entailed CTU coverage as an attending physician two months a year. I did have a half-day clinic a week, kindly aided by Drs. Copeland and Donovan, the clinical respirologists at the time. The majority of my time was devoted to basic research in those earlier years.


Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on a career path in Allergy & Immunology?

At the end of medical school and the beginning of my first year of residency, immunology promised to have all the answers when it came to medicine. I still think it is going to have all of the answers. Together with genetic assessment and immune response, it continues to be a driving force in medicine. The field was promising at the time, so I decided to try it and do three years of research to see if it was what I wanted to pursue. My fellowship at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine further cemented my interest in the field in both clinical and research aspects. Basic research changed from time to time: from cellular aspects to animal models of asthma to airway smooth muscle mechanics. I was fortunate to work alongside investigators who were always probing things. I found it rewarding to work in a group that was consistently open to challenge; it was all done in the spirit of learning. It was a productive environment that was difficult to replace. It did change over time due to the size of the group. I have not been as involved in the basic research but got more involved in clinical aspects where I tried to develop clinical programs away from the lab.

It’s become more group work where much has changed into big data and evaluations. It is very different from the more physiological type of experiments I was involved in – including on ourselves! It was Hogg and Paré who were the physiologists. When we were conducting experiments at the beginning, we were our own first subjects.

I think we were naïve when we started. For instance, we wanted to study anaphylactic shock. We wanted to know what mechanisms were involved with histamine and how histamine plays a role. So I had a postdoc infuse histamine into me while someone else was monitoring my blood pressure. After a few minutes, I said, “Nothing is happening. Double the dose.” Then, of course, I flushed like crazy while my BP dropped to 80/35. (Laughs) So that didn’t last long, but we did set up the experiment in a more appropriate way moving forward. It was rewarding in terms of the data we eventually got from that, but it was a bit naïve of us.


What is your career highlight?

In research, we did define a number of aspects in the animal models of asthma. We defined human airway smooth muscle mechanics and how that changed with asthmatic inflammation.

Together with a Swedish group, we were the first to define the role of leukotrienes on human airway smooth muscle contraction and the contributions of these molecules in addition to histamine and prostaglandins on the airway contraction from an allergic trigger.

We investigated the cardiovascular side of anaphylaxis and studied how histamine both dilates blood vessels and affects blood pressure while also decreasing heart contractility. It is a clinical double whammy with regard to the mechanisms involved, involving both histamine H1 and H2 receptor activation.

I found getting involved in the clinical aspect was also very rewarding, and I gravitated to the care of adult patients with both primary and secondary immune deficiencies. A highlight for me was developing the Subcutaneous Immunoglobulin Home Infusion Program, a program that provides subcutaneous immunoglobulin antibody replacement therapy for individuals with primary or secondary immune deficiency. Historically, these patients would have to come into the hospital to receive intravenous injections and even before that, they were intramuscular injections. After receiving training from a health care professional, subcutaneous immunoglobulin infusions can be self-administered by the patient in their own home. It allows patients to receive treatment on their own schedule without needing to visit the hospital – which is especially important now with COVID-19 concerns.

Another point of pride is the continuing expansion of the immunology program at St. Paul’s Hospital by my more junior colleagues, such as the Immunology Transition Clinic with Dr. Catherine Biggs from BCWC Hospital and Dr. Persia Pourshahnazari from SPH. The clinic serves adolescents transitioning into adult care and adults with primary immunodeficiencies (PIDs). They are developing clinical algorithms and diagnostic tools to improve screening for PIDs in addition to genetic testing to evaluate specific mutations. There is a dire need provincially to have the coordination of support. At SPH especially, the limitation is space. Space has always been the catch, and I am afraid it will become even more of an issue. I would hate to see some of these initiatives wither because of space when there is a wealth of expertise in management and potential.


Who was your most important mentor?

I have been fortunate to have excellent guidance in my career. Dr. Kam Tse, Head of the Division of Allergy at the University of Manitoba, provided encouragement and recommendations regarding fellowship training institutions. My supervisors at Johns Hopkins, Drs. Gillespie and Atkinson were highly inspirational and supportive.

As mentioned previously, I consider the two colleagues that I came to join at UBC mentors, Dr. Jim Hogg and Dr. Peter Paré. Their constant intellectual curiosity, critical review of data, sharing of ideas, and interest in others’ well-being was highly inspirational.

I’ve had a lot of good help from the department of medicine as well. When I arrived in Vancouver, the head of medicine at SPH was Dr. Bill Hurlburt. It was a very collegial group we had at the time. He ran a tight ship; we were all expected to attend Grand Rounds every week, participate in events and do our part on the clinical teaching unit. As a result, there were many tremendous interactions, and it was an enjoyable environment. I always felt very supported at both UBC and the St Paul’s site, and there’s always been great rapport between groups at St Paul’s.


What advice would you have for a junior faculty member in your field?

The training program that we have now is full of excellent people. My reservation is the limitation in terms of opportunities for academic involvement. Junior faculty are involved in teaching and taking on graduate students; however, the research aspect proves to be a problem for getting adequate funding and securing the time needed to carry out projects. I think that’s globally true in all areas of academic medicine.

To be honest, it’s tough to compete for CIHR grants when you’re doing a lot of clinical work. We are seeing it in our department now with the resources that are available. The goal is to have protected time to spend 75% of your time doing research, and it is increasingly difficult to manage, and I think it has gotten worse over time. You cannot do it alone; you need to have a nidus of expertise around you to be successful.

There’s a lack of security in terms of academic positions available. It is such an advantage to have division members that also work in the hospital environment and interact with other divisions.

I am encouraged by how involved our recent trainees are in teaching and training in various projects. With this in mind, the advice I would offer is to get involved in all aspects of academics, education, and research. Just get involved. Make a point of going to the journal clubs, retreats, and events offered. The importance of collegiality and involvement leads to opportunities of benefit to the individual, the institution, and the community at large.


What advice might you have for a senior faculty member approaching retirement?

I think involvement and mentorship are the keys. Having just retired, I still plan to be involved in the various journal clubs and events. I hope to be involved in other discussions with the emeritus group to maintain interest and activity. Learning is a lifelong process. Learning opportunities are funny things that pop up where you least expect them. For instance, while reading about an airline pilot this week, I learned something I’ve never even thought about: Airplane tires. There’s a lot of friction on those tires when the planes come down to land, so you can’t have air in the tires because if there’s too much oxygen, they’ll ignite! They would also freeze at higher altitudes. So they’re filled with nitrogen instead, which is inert and non-combustible. I had never given it a thought, but I was still able to learn about a process that was interesting to me. That’s the thing with medicine – you’re always learning. The fun part about being in academics as compared to solitary practice, if you will, is to maintain constant learning. I find it very enjoyable.


What kind of activities or subjects did you have in mind leading up to your retirement that you were interested in exploring?

I’d like to do a bit more writing and some coursework to develop my creative writing skills. Spend a little more time in the arts than I usually do. I do carpentry, and I enjoy making things for my grandchildren. There are always learning opportunities in terms of improving carpentry techniques. I’ll maintain physical activity in terms of cycling – and the nice part now is that I can do it in the daylight! While I was working, I would cycle to work in the dark, and I would cycle home in the dark. Now I can wait until a nice day like today and get out and enjoy the sunshine.

I’m also the Chair of the Board of Directors for the BC Lung Association. I’ve been very involved with that over the years, first with the Medical Advisory Committee and now the Board. They are doing a great job, and I am amazed at how well they’ve maintained their projects in COVID times without people in the office. It’s nice to have some other volunteer capacity to get involved with and to interact with different people in different groups.


What was your last day of work like?

I just remember going down on December 23, which was my last day of work in the hospital, to turn in my pager and made sure I was no longer on the call list. Then on Christmas Day, I got called from ICU anyway. I still expect a few extra calls here and there.


What will you miss most about working at UBC?

It is definitely going to be the interactions with people, both colleagues and patients. You get to know your patients very well, especially when you have followed them for 30 years. You build up relationships with your colleagues and the staff in the clinics in the hospital. It is a tough goodbye. I can recall in my early years at SPH, at around 10 or 11 in the morning, there was always coffee in the department of medicine office across from the department head’s office. We would pop up and have a coffee and a chat. It was nice. Then, after a time, everything became too busy, and the practice petered off. I think the loss of social time is a bit of a disadvantage in terms of performance. Taking those breaks and having impromptu conversations with your colleagues can help productive clinical discussions and breakthroughs.

Years ago, I decided to set up a regular Monday morning research and progress seminar for the trainees, elective residents, and whoever was on service at the time. We would sit down for two hours and discuss basic science, research, and clinical aspects of allergy and immunology, while also making room for discussion about what was happening in their lives and the world. There were many comments made when I left that these meeting opportunities were things that the trainees appreciated and learned a lot from and found the interactions helpful. It was a commitment I had decided to make early on, and I see now that it was as rewarding for them as it was for me.


What is something we might be surprised to learn about you?

I do enjoy creative writing. I had a spot in our lab’s monthly newsletter called “Bob’s Corner.” It was just a humorous little ditty – writing whatever I felt like writing. I also enjoy carpentry, building furniture, and smaller pieces as jewelry boxes and artistic clocks for the grandkids. It is no secret that I am an avid cyclist and that cycling has been my primary mode of transportation over the years.


In all your years, how many days did you miss cycling in?

I have to admit, even during COVID-19 times when the parking at the hospital was free, I did not take advantage of it once. I find it very frustrating to drive in Vancouver. I would occasionally choose to drive in when I had different meetings, but the traffic is so lousy – especially coming home. I could get in relatively quickly in the morning, but getting through rush-hour on the way home was awful. I would much rather be out in the fresh air. If it did get icy, I would never take chances that way.

I started cycling to work when we moved to Baltimore doing my post-doc fellowship at Johns Hopkins. We had a three-month-old son and only one vehicle. That is where the cycling started, and the practice just carried on from there. The cycling would have to stop around Halloween in Manitoba because it would get too cold and too treacherous. Once I moved to the west coast, it was smooth sailing all year round.

Cycling in Vancouver, what gets you are the ups and downs. In Manitoba, it was the wind. I remember going to work one day complaining about how often the wind turned around because I was pedalling against it for my 13 1/2 mile ride-in. Everybody at coffee would say, “A likely story, Schellenberg,” until one of our technicians came to my defence and said, “You know, Bob, I’ve noticed the same thing!”. Then I felt vindicated. Five minutes later, we would start laughing because he came from due north and I came from due south (Laughs).


What are you looking most forward to in your retirement?

One of the things I was looking forward to with retirement was the freedom to travel, but that is not happening right now. I am not able to see my daughter’s family over in the UK. Life is a bit more limiting now with COVID restrictions, but we do get over to see the grandkids in Vancouver; we are grateful for that.

The Department of Medicine is incredibly grateful to Dr. Schellenberg for agreeing to be interviewed and being so generous with his time and insight.