Joel, those who were graduate students while you were the Chair have really revered you. What were your precepts about graduate education?
I did have few precepts about graduate education which I kept to myself and simply tried to implement. I’m not so sure that I agreed with Allan Bass that Pharmacology is a distinct, self-sustaining discipline. It’s intrinsically multi-disciplinary. My approach in graduate education was first to train students as scientists and second, to tailor that training with an emphasis in an area. To do this in Pharmacology, I believe requires firm grounding in more fundamental disciplines, biochemistry for example.
I believed in giving graduate students a lot of latitude in picking their mentors inside or outside the Department. Our willingness to do this was supported by the GM Institute at NIH, which dropped the old discipline-oriented training grants and initiated a second generation, which they referred to as “training grants in pharmacological sciences.” The implication of that title was that they needed to be multi-disciplinary in nature. Consequently, we expanded the mentor base beyond the Pharmacology Department. Fred Guengerich in Biochemistry was recruited as a mentor because of his interest in toxicology. A faculty member in Chemistry joined the training program, although no students ever selected him as a mentor. And John Exton, on the faculty in Physiology, also became a mentor in our training program. John later received a joint faculty appointment in Pharmacology.
Something I thought important for students to learn was that just because a paper was published didn’t mean it was important or even that its conclusions were correct. In informal, frequent sessions with students, I used a number of exercises to help students understand this point.
We also had a reputation for having high standards for classroom teaching by faculty. I don’t know if that was true or not, but some of that reputation came from my habit of sitting in on courses that our faculty were teaching. That began with the Pharmacology course for medical students. It had been a long time since my Pharmacology training, so the first and second years I was Chair, I sat in on the Pharmacology course for medical students simply to relearn and update my knowledge about the field. However, the medical students expressed strong feelings about the importance, in their minds, of the Chair attending lectures. And so I continued that practice. I didn’t intend to intimidate faculty who were teaching, but it seems that in some cases I did. Sitting in on courses did help me identify lectures given by faculty who weren’t doing a good job and give pointers to those lecturers or reassign the lectures to someone else.
How did the departmental retreats get started?
Lee started them. After she had been at Vanderbilt a year or so, she suggested to me that a retreat where faculty members talked about their research would be valuable in keeping people in the department aware about what was going on in the many labs. I told her I thought it was such a good idea that she should organize it. And she did. At the first one, only faculty members talked about their research. The idea was that we would rotate with faculty presenting one year and students and postdocs the next. So, the second year it was students and postdocs, and they did such a much better job than the faculty had done that thereafter the faculty didn’t give retreat talks.
Heidi, how was faculty attendance at the retreat this year?
It wasn’t good enough.
It was never very good.
(to JH) Talk about the relationship between the faculty in Pharmacology and Clin Pharm.
I’m just going to ramble. The relationship was a very healthy one, by and large because there wasn’t a “them and us” mentality. The Division of Clinical Pharmacology was a Division of both Medicine and Pharmacology. Its space was adjacent to and actually overlapped with the “core” Pharmacology Department, so there was a lot of interaction between members of the Division and core. John Oates had a primary appointment in Pharmacology and a secondary one in Medicine. And that situation existed until he took the Chair of Medicine. All of the Ph.D.’s in the Division had primary appointments in Pharmacology—Grant Wilkinson, Jack Watson, Allan Brash, Ed Jackson, Ian Blair. And the M.D.’s were divided in their appointments. Some had primary appointments in Medicine—Alan Nies, Alastair Wood, David Robertson, Bob Branch, for example—and secondary ones in Pharmacology, and others, Jack Roberts and David Shand for example, the reverse. Jack Watson was recruited by John Oates before I joined the Department to run the Mass spec resource. John had very early recognized the value of that technology for drug metabolism studies and eicosanoid research. Jack eventually went to Michigan State, and Ian Blair was recruited as his successor.
The Division was pretty much self-supporting financially and didn’t require much in the way of institutional funds. Members of the Division were very competitive in their NIH and other grant applications, and several had access to money from drug companies that the rest of the Department didn’t. Grant Wilkinson set up the first drug analysis lab in the institution, where researchers and clinicians who needed drug levels could have them determined. That generated significant income for the Division for several years, but the head of the clinical lab in the hospital thought that Grant’s operation was in the wrong place, and the clinical lab eventually took over clinical drug level analyses.
Members of the Clinical Division played a major teaching role in our course for medical students, which our graduate students also took, as well as in some of our courses for graduate students. They were also very active as mentors in our graduate student training program. Faculty members in the Division who wanted graduate students had them. And many did. For example, Jeff Balser worked with Dan Roden, and Dick Maas worked with Alan Brash and John Oates. There were many others. Ed Jackson and David Robertson each had several graduate students.
Joel, tell us from your perspective…Lee was telling us about protecting time to do research. Were you the one who was protecting her?
I did believe that faculty members who were struggling to get their own programs started should not be burdened with teaching duties or committee duties.
Lee, how did you see being in the Department? What was it like being an assistant professor?
Oh, it was wonderful. We were spoiled, because there weren’t any other young pups. It was like being the youngest child. When I set up my lab, there was all of this equipment….a lot of was used, but I didn’t care.
I think it’s probably still true today, but one of the great things about growing up in the Vanderbilt scientific community back then was that there were all of these old hands around, such as Sidney Colowick and Stan Cohen, who were never hesitant to sit down and spend as long as you wanted to talk about whatever you wanted to talk about. It was just a very nurturing place for young scientists.
I want to say one more thing about Allan Bass. When I was thinking about taking the Chair, more than one person said to me “don’t.” Because, they thought, Allan Bass would still try to run the Department. “It’s his Department and he will tell you how to run it.” Wrong. Allan never offered one piece of advice that I didn’t ask him for. He came by to talk to me often, and at times I would ask his advice about something. He would always tell me, very candidly, if he thought an idea I asked him about was half-cocked. But he never came forward with unsolicited advice. And I really appreciated that. He was always so supportive. I don’t know that he agreed with a lot of stuff that I did. He never told me if he didn’t. He was nothing but supportive.
So did that influence how you worked on the transition with Lee? How did that happen?
I was getting awfully tired of being Chair. I had been in the job for over 15 years, and I figured that I had worn it out about five years earlier. Lee was seriously looking at the Chair at Virginia, and David Garbers had just announced that he was going to move to Dallas. I just decided that I don’t like doing this anymore. I went to Ike Robinson and gave him my two-year notice. I’m stepping down at the end of two years, I said, but I will step down sooner if you can find someone you want to take the Chair. And if I were you, I’d talk to Lee Limbird before she runs off to Virginia.