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Nerds of Mizzou

International nerd is compulsively curious

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Dec. 22, 2009
Glen Heggie with dogs and smart car

Glen Heggie, chair of MU's Department of Cardiopulmonary and Diagnostic Sciences, drives a 2008 Smart "Passion" built in Smartville, France. His regular passengers are Phoebe, a 3-year-old cream standard poodle, and Angus, a 2-year-old brown standard show poodle. Both work as therapy dogs.

Canadian Glen Heggie may speak with a soft voice in a slight Scottish accent, but his job description screams “nerd.”

In the MU School of Health Professions, Heggie directs the Nuclear Medicine Program and chairs the Department of Cardiopulmonary and Diagnostic Sciences.

Nothing Heggie does seems simple. He begins each day as most of us do, with a typical Web search for news and views, but Heggie’s preferred media outlets are international: French, Canadian, British, Italian, Australian and German.

As a kid, Heggie “popped back and forth” from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Scotland with his family or alone. Now if people ask him where home is, his likely response is “between my ears.”

Such international travel, plus boarding school, added a cultural awareness to Heggie’s knowledge base and a keen interest in language that led to a working familiarity with French, Latin and Gaelic. After having lived in Canada for most of his career, Heggie moved his family to Columbia in 2002, which, he says, left him culturally confused.

“Things are very different here in ways you might not expect,” he says. Heggie wonders why Midwesterners say “excuse me” so often, why four-way stops proliferate when roundabouts are far superior and whether Americans know they are identifiable by the way they walk.

Nuclear medicine made simple

Glen Heggie

Heggie custom ordered "Moby," this cedar and mahogany bell-bodied nine-string Waldzither built by luthier Nikos Apollonio of Rockport, Maine.

Heggie, a clinical associate professor, has been making the complex subject of nuclear medicine understandable since 1977.

Nuclear medicine, which is a specialty branch of medicine and medical imaging, uses radioactive isotopes to diagnose and treat disease. Technologists assess a patient’s health and metabolism by taking images of tissue function after administering radioactively labeled pharmaceuticals through intravenous injection, inhalation or ingestion. Once in the body, those materials accumulate in the targeted tissues in proportion to blood flow and regional metabolism.  

“We can usually see disease before damage occurs,” Heggie says of the process that shows tumors, cysts, abscesses, hemorrhages and other abnormalities.

He demystifies the subject for his students through hands-on demonstrations culled from years of working in hospitals and labs, and he considers his post-mortem work especially valuable preparation for teaching. Heggie used to bring in actual hearts for his classes on cardiovascular dynamics but found that using vegetables was just as effective and more hygienic; he builds model hearts from red and orange bell peppers. When peppers are cut, they have walls that resemble ventricles and septa and internal divisions that mimic papillary muscles.

Simplicity is key, Heggie says. “It’s very easy to snow somebody and impress them with what they don’t know and what you do know, and you’ve taught them nothing. You’ve turned them off. The challenge is to make it so simple that they grasp the concept…. There’s very little out there that’s beyond the grasp of anybody who’s interested.”

Such dedication earned Heggie a rare tribute for advanced educational achievement and professional contributions. He was named a fellow of the Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists, a national professional association and certifying body. The group has 12,000 members, but only 16 people (14 currently living) have received the honor since its establishment in 1965.

Pathologically persistent

If you ask Heggie a question, you might as well sit down because you’re in for a detailed explanation that to him just scratches the surface of a topic. “I go off on tangents,” he admits. “I can’t think of anything more fun to do than explain something to somebody.”

Students quickly learn he’s not planning to simply give them information; he’s going to teach them how to find knowledge.

By the time they graduate, those students will remember Heggie for many reasons: his intensity; the detailed diagrams he scribbles as he teaches nuclear medicine; how he can wax poetic on any subject; his droll sense of humor; and his sartorial statements — he wears sandals with socks every day of the year and with every type of clothing, from casual wear to pin-stripe suits.

“I have a lot of love for Dr. Heggie. He’s just different. Intense,” says Michael Hart, BHS ’08. “Everything is in depth with him. He’ll make sure you understand the point that he’s trying to get across. It’s the verbiage, the way he describes things.”

Ruff life

Glen's snowshoes

Heggie is known for wearing socks with sandals all year. His snowshoes are designed for powdery snow, he says, adding 'Smaller snowshoes are seen when dealing with wet, sticky snow (or if the wearer is a Smurf).'

For fun, Heggie loves motorbikes, which he considers things of beauty. He was an instructor in motorcycle training with the Canada Safety Council for three years but gave up the hobby after his children started showing way too much interest in the machines.

So instead, he drove a safe 1980ish land cruiser that was creatively assembled from parts of eight different vehicles. The car began to look real only after a paint job tied it altogether. Recently, he gave the land cruiser to his son and bought a Smart Car. 

“It’s a hoot,” he says of how the mini-car attracts gawkers and inspires comparisons of gas mileage. Heggie’s most frequent passengers — two large poodles — squeeze into the small back seat of the car and slouch into what can best be described as embryonic positions.

With her white, curly fur, Phoebe sports an informal grooming style known as a working cut, but Angus, who is chocolate brown, wears a formal cut reminiscent of a topiary tree. Like Heggie’s car, the poodles are smart. The “wee beasties” understand when they’re being driven to their “jobs” at the School of Health Professions’ adult day care locations.

As trained therapy dogs, they work weekly at one of two locations for MU Adult Day Connection (formerly ElderCare) and periodically attend Reading to Rover sessions at Daniel Boone Regional Library or visit patients at MU’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center.

Heggie reports that Phoebe and Angus work for rubs, pats and joy rides in his Smart Car. Simplicity, once again, is the key to success.

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Last updated: June 6, 2013