Father-Daughter Super Duo Inspires on Father’s Day

June 15, 2023
Rudy and Natasha Leibel

Daughters who follow in the footsteps of their inspirational fathers are well-known and celebrated in Hollywood. Jane and Henry Fonda. Sofia and Francis Ford Coppola. But here at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), the father-daughter stars are the Drs. Leibel—Natasha and Rudolph (Rudy)—working in parallel at the forefront of science and medicine to improve the treatment of patients with diabetes and obesity, and inspired by each other for decades.

Both Drs. Leibel work (on different floors) at CUIMC’s Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion. Dr. Rudy Leibel is a world-renowned scientist and the co-discoverer of leptin, the hormone in fat that has revolutionized our understanding of metabolism. Dr. Leibel’s co-discovery of this hormone in the 1990s was a key step in a long line of observations and research that ultimately led to the development of the recent headline-grabbing drugs for obesity such as semaglutide (brand name Ozempic). His more recent work has illuminated the molecular genetics of body weight regulation, a field of outsize importance given the epidemic of obesity in our country. 

Dr. Natasha Leibel is an acclaimed pediatric endocrinologist known for her tireless dedication to her patients with types 1 and 2 diabetes. She and her team are particularly interested in identifying rare forms of the disease. Though father and daughter work only four floors apart, they rarely see each other during the workday and neither supervises the other nor formally collaborates. But their work sometimes does naturally intersect in the study of those unusual cases of diabetes that may be due to single gene mutations. In those instances, Natasha turns to Rudy’s expertise as a molecular geneticist and to his elite research team to work out the complex identification of these rare forms of the disease.

Rudy and Natasha Leibel at Natasha's med school graduation

Rudy and Natasha at her medical school graduation in 1998

The mutual admiration and respect the two have for each other is palpable. Natasha says of Rudy: “His actions speak louder than words, and he has been an inspiration in the way he has lived his life. He is so brilliant, but so humble about it. He truly is the most brilliant person I have ever met and a real renaissance man,” pointing to Rudy’s interests in poetry, literature, and even fountain pen collecting. “Rudy also has been a real champion of women in science and a mentor to many young scientists. I also have to mention that he is a wonderful grandfather to his four grandchildren who text him regularly with questions ranging from physics to history.”

While Natasha credits her father’s influence on her career choice as “huge in so many ways,” Rudy says that this was never “intentional.” He does recount his insistence during Natasha’s high school years that she “take a full load of science courses at a time when this was not necessarily what girls did.” But perhaps the influence on Natasha was more indirect and through osmosis of sorts.

Both remember Rudy quizzing his daughters (Natasha’s sister is a dermatologist in the U.K.) on anatomy when they were very little, with jellybean rewards for correct answers. And Rudy recalls how Natasha, as a child, would listen intently as he answered patient calls from the hallway telephone (long before cellphones). “Natasha would listen to some of the advice I gave. She would hear me talking about fevers, respiratory symptoms, diarrhea, and vomiting, and giving advice to patients with diabetes.” She had learned enough that “she could have given quite cogent advice” to patients herself on a phone call, even to patients with diabetes, he says.  

Decades later, Rudy is now almost exclusively in the laboratory and Natasha is the clinician giving lifesaving advice on the phone and in person to hundreds of children and families dealing with diabetes. And, just as the young Natasha gleaned clinical insights from Rudy’s hallway telephone calls, Rudy says that he now values Natasha’s advice on clinical issues. The scientific community and countless patients will be forever grateful to this father-daughter duo and their relationship of mutual learning and inspiration that has benefited so many patients, and will continue to for years to come.