By day, biochemist Ivan Lopez is an assistant professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery, where he does research on the molecular pathology of the inner ear. By night and on weekends, Lopez is a black-belted martial arts master practicing his moves in Shotokan karate and other forms of self-defense at the John Wooden Recreation Center. Over the past six years, Lopez has taken a record 69 classes in martial arts through UCLA Recreation. To honor his dedication, an award bearing his name is given annually to the UCLA martial artist “who embodies True Bruin values with their participation, attitude, ability and character,” said martial arts program coordinator Paul “British Ninja” McCarthy. UCLA Newsroom senior writer Judy Lin talked to Lopez for this edited Q&A.

What started you on this path?
In 2009, I was walking home at about 5 p.m. from a bus stop on Venice Boulevard. I heard somebody in back of me yelling, but I didn’t pay attention. Suddenly three guys attacked me and hit me with socks filled with stones. I was bleeding. I remember thinking about my family and how these guys were going to kill me. I didn’t do anything [to defend myself]. After that, I thought about checking for martial arts classes at UCLA. When I was a kid in Mexico, I loved to do martial arts — my cousin taught me judo and kung fu. That was the 1970s, when “Enter the Dragon” and other Bruce Lee movies came out.

Do you remember your first class? And how have you changed since then?

Courtesy of Ivan Lopez
Ivan Lopez practices Muay Thai boxing

It was Shotokan karate where I met my first “sensei,” teacher Beth Hyatt, in 2009. I was very thin, very introverted — the classic scientist. I’d been exercising at the Wooden Center and running 4-5 miles every day, but that was nothing compared to a martial arts workout. After that first class I was in so much pain … but I continued and began to reach a certain level of physical conditioning.

I’ve been taking one or two classes every quarter for six years ever since — mainly Shotokan karate —  and I train outside of class with friends on weekends. I also do Muay Thai kickboxing. I tried Brazilian jujitsu where you drop onto the floor. I don’t have that flexibility.

I have developed more agility and more stamina. And I’ve relearned to sit and walk. Before, I noticed that I was curved forward and walking like a caveman. That’s what happens when you sit staring at a computer for six or seven hours a day.

How does the class unfold?
It’s all about discipline. When you enter the room — the “dojo” — you bow to the teacher and the class. If you forget, the instructor makes you do push-ups — 25, 50, even 100. You may think that you have discipline, but in martial arts you have to master it because you’re supposed to be an example to students, a leader. The class starts with exercises like running and stretches to warm up. Then we do a sequence — punching the air, then kicking and then “kata,” a sequence of steps using both hands and legs. It’s a kind of choreography. You have to have good posture and breathing.

What is it about Shotokan karate that you like?
Every martial art has different kinds of movement. In some you do very rehearsed movements that will teach you how to deflect a punch or escape from a situation. In others, you learn to grab the person and choke him.

In Shotokan karate, with a one shot — a single punch or kick — you knock out the person and that’s it. This takes years to learn. You don’t actually knock anyone out in class. You use a punching bag, and your position and movement tell you how well you’re doing. Or you compete in tournaments with strict rules and protective gear. You’ll never know until you’re in front of somebody whether you can really do it. But it’s the most amazing thing.

The most important thing that’s taught in Shotokan karate and every martial art is not to confront people. We are a human weapon, but we are not supposed to use it. You learn to be aware of what is around you and to avoid fighting in the street with people who just want to beat you. Maybe they’re ill or disabled. You can get into trouble using martial arts. The night I was attacked, I should have paid attention to the danger. I should have crossed the street, gone inside a store or called somebody.

Do lessons you’ve learned from martial arts carry over into other aspects of your life?
You learn to pay attention. You have to be present while doing this practice or you can get hurt. All the kicking and the punching — that’s fun, but the main thing is to be awake. When you’re exposed to this, it opens your universe. And that benefits everything. It helps me to be attentive and present with my students. I mentor graduate students in the medical school. All my martial arts training has helped bring them the best of me. I’ve also become friends with students I’ve trained with, from freshmen to Ph.D. students. Some have seen me in class and asked, “Dr. Lopez, can I do some research in your lab?” and we’ve done that.

Martial arts even help me write grants, which you really need a lot of energy for. Sometimes the night before I have to write a grant I go to the Wooden Center for a workout and then to my lab to write until 2 or 3 a.m. Then I’ll take a nap and wake up at 5 a.m. full of energy to go back to the lab to finish.

Now that you’ve earned your black belt, what’s next?
Getting the black belt is just the beginning. There are 10 more grades after that, so I’m still learning. I want to do martial arts as long as I can. The best thing is that when you get inside the dojo, you leave your problems outside. Your brain is like a motor always working, and the class is a meditation. You forget everything. It frees up your energy, and you go, “Ahh!” and get ideas. You need some peace of mind.

Learn about UCLA Recreation’s martial arts classes here.