An Interview with David Kroll, Professor and Chair of Pharmaceutical Sciences at NCCU

Thursday, November 6, 2008
By Student

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by Anna

David J Kroll is a professor and chair in the department of pharmaceutical sciences in the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) at North Carolina Central University. He has a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Therapeutics and a B.S. in Toxicology. He is also a guest lecturer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Having attended the Science Online conferences since they began, he is anxiously anticipating this year’s conference.

Specializing in research and discovery of new anticancer drugs, he is especially concerned with plant, bacterial, and fungal based drugs. On a regular basis, he contributes to both Terra Sigillata and Science-Based Medicine, two prominent scientific blogs.

Why are you attending the Science Online conference?

The short answer is that the gathering includes some of the most exciting and interesting people I have ever met in science or medicine. Each person has a beautiful story to tell and each one is passionate about sharing the intoxication of their love for science with anyone who will listen. I spend every day of being a professor with other professors and students who are focused on a very specific area of science, the discovery of new drugs, and the conference allows me to spread my wings and interact with a wide variety of people from other disciplines, other states, and even other countries. Many of these people are already friends and colleagues online and others are simply friends who I haven’t yet met. The ScienceOnline unconference format captures the energy and excitement of everything for which I went into science as a career.

The longer answer requires a bit of background: Even before I got involved in science and medical blogging, I had always been interested in communicating science information to the public. I had a few really good high school teachers and college professors who were fabulous at teaching us how big science and medical advances related to our lives. Their skills were to distill very complex information for general audiences. When I started as a University of Colorado School of Pharmacy professor in 1992, I strived to be the kind of teacher like those who originally got me interested in science and made it accessible to me. So, I used to try and start my classes with a little vignette about some recent story or scientific paper related even distantly to my lecture material, usually about new research on drugs that might come on the market or how basic science discoveries might lead to new drugs. The feedback I received from students was that these diversions kept them interested and engaged beyond the basic course material. I also used to give lectures to the general public on science issues, including our “Mini-Med School” that was founded by my teaching mentor and Denver Café Scientifique organizer, Professor JJ Cohen. What I found exciting was that I was lucky to get 25 people to show up at a talk on my basic research projects, but these university-sponsored programs for the public would bring in anywhere from 100 to 450 people!

When I moved to North Carolina and worked in a science job where I had little opportunity for lecturing, I started a blog to share with the general public these little stories about my field with anyone who would “listen.” The blog became modestly successful and was picked up by ScienceBlogs.com, yet it still retains a cozy feel of a small group of readers who care about drugs for cancer and other drugs that come from natural sources like plants, microbes, and sea creatures. I used to teach 130 or 140 students in each class so I felt that if I ever reached more than this number of people on the blog, it would be a success in my mind. While I am still a “small-time” blogger, my primary blog reaches about 350 people a day, or almost three times the number of people I’d teach in pharmacy school.

This led to me becoming very excited about this whole medium of the science blog and the community who both wrote and read these newfangled information sources. The people who I met in this community online were incredibly supportive when I started my blog and helped to drive others to read what I had to say. The camaraderie of bloggers online just simply made me want to meet these people in real life because I knew they’d be cool to hang with.

Have you ever attended this conference before? If so, do you have any suggestions to help me make the best of my experience?

I’ve attended this conference since it started. I am very lucky to live in an area of the world where there are some incredibly energetic visionaries and supporters of how online science communication can help everyone, from little kids to retired folks. Through some sort of bizarre cosmic convergence, an entirely UNscientific concept, I live within ten miles of Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker, considered to be the co-founders of this event (together with Brian Russell and Professor Paul Jones.). Bora is a long-time advocate of online, open science communication and Anton is not just a journalist and online publishing guru, but he is also one of the most interesting people I have ever met in part because he is so interested in the stories that each person has to share about their life, profession, and passions. When I first met these guys at a blogger meetup at a local coffee shop, I was blown away by how titles and positions in the “real” world meant nothing while the ideas and projects everyone had to share were far more important. The creativity of all these people, and the relative absence of judgmental personalities that we often face in the scientific world, just seemed so refreshing and I knew I had found some kindred spirits.

When Anton and Bora proposed the first meeting, originally called the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, I knew that I would meet some other amazing people from around the country and, as I found out later, around the world, who shared this almost child-like curiosity and buzzing enthusiasm for science that I had not encountered since high school and college.

What you should know is that all of you from Miss Baker’s class will be treated like celebrities. Everyone at the meeting, regardless of stature as a scientist, journalist, educator or prominence as a blogger, cares deeply about science education of the next generation. The fact that each of you are actively engaged in this project with such a forward-thinking teacher who wants you to actually come to the conference is something that will bring you a lot of attention from the attendees. As a result, you will be able to make contacts with an amazing array of interesting people who can be of help to you now and in the future in figuring out your own life path. Take some time beforehand to look up the URLs of the registrants and make a special note of who you want to specifically hunt out and meet – they’ll be impressed that you were inquisitive enough to learn about them in advance.

Oh, and just have fun! No questions or answers are right or wrong – this is a place for discourse, sharing, and learning, good food and good conversation. And I know that many of us old fogies are going to want to know how you folks are using the web as an extension of your learning and what your ideas are for this medium in the future. We’re looking to you for answers and ideas as much as you are asking question of us scientists through these interviews.

After reading your biography from UNC, it is evident that one of your areas of expertise is researching natural/herbal treatments for cancer. What expectations do you have for the future of natural remedies for both major and minor health problems?

My background in natural and herbal remedies comes from the fact I am a cancer researcher. It turns out that 60% of all cancer drugs used today come from some natural source: plants, bacteria and fungi, even marine organisms. In fact, 25% percent of all the drugs we use today come from “natural products”: even Neosporin ointment is comprised of three separate naturally-occurring antibiotics! However, we use these medicines as carefully controlled preparations, purified to provide a defined and reproducible dose.

In 1995, my pharmacy students were perplexed by all the herbal medicines and dietary supplements they were seeing in pharmacies where they were working part-time during school. They asked me to start teaching about these and that’s how I got interested in the good and bad about herbal medicines. This is a complicated and confusing field because herbal medicines are treated in the US as foods and not medicines. Unlike drugs, these remedies do not have to be proven effective or even safe.

However, I do feel that some of these remedies might have potential for health benefits, but only if studied in a defined and reproducible manner. In 1805, a German physician and pharmacist named Serturner first isolated the painkillers morphine and codeine from the opium poppy. He realized that depending on how and where this flower was grown or when it was harvested, the latex liquid from the mature plant would have varying amounts of these beneficial chemicals. So, he devised a way to extract out and purify the morphine and codeine so they could be used in a known quantity, both effectively and safely.

So I feel that herbal medicines have the potential to be of benefit in several diseases and disease prevention but only if we study the chemicals that are in each of these natural remedies and investigate scientifically whether they really work or what dose has to be used to make them work. Unfortunately, many products sold on the market do not even contain enough of potentially beneficial chemicals per dose and are pretty much a waste of money. But we continue to study plants, fungi, and bacteria for new cancer drugs. I am part of a big project funded by the US National Cancer Institute to identify potential new anticancer drugs from each of these sources. The team is led by my colleagues at Ohio State University and involves co-workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Research Triangle Institute (RTI) in North Carolina, and a colleague who runs a small company called Mycosynthetix where he has 55,000 cultures of filamentous fungi just waiting to be explored for new chemicals. (In fact, my colleagues at RTI discovered two major anticancer drugs back in the 1960s and 1970s, taxol and camptothecin.). The big drug company, Bristol Myers-Squibb, also tests some of the drugs the group discovers and would have the ability to bring one of these to patients if we are lucky.

What does a normal work day consist of for you?

Well, I hate to tell you that it’s not too glamorous – certainly not like the scientists on CSI! I’m about 20 years out from getting my Ph.D. so a lot of my day involves planning and strategizing with other scientists who actually do the work, writing proposals to get the money for our people to do their work, and working closely with students who want to work in biotechnology and the pharmaceutical sciences. I’m very lucky to work at North Carolina Central University in Durham. It is one of 16 constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina system and we are one of five historically-black colleges/universities (HBCUs) in the UNC system. We serve students from all walks of life and ethnicities, younger and older, and our primary goal is to give students educational opportunities they might not have otherwise had at larger, predominantly white institutions.

My workday starts at home, usually around 5:30 or 6:00 am when I get on the computer and check my e-mail for any academic issues that may have come up during the night. I have scientist colleagues around the world who might write me during their workday which, in Australia for example, is while I am sleeping. Many of the people I work with also think about science and students all hours of the day and night and with laptop computers and wireless connections, we often write to one another whenever we get ideas – the “workplace” is no longer just at work and creative people are always thinking and communicating.

I also scan all the medical and health news services for recent developments and check about 40 of my favorite blogs in science, medicine, and education for their take on recent science news or ideas I can incorporate into my lecture material. I then make coffee for my wife, take our beagle for a walk, and help get our 6-year-old daughter off to school.

I usually get to the university around 9:30 am and check in with all of our support staff for any issues that have come up for students or professors. I’m the chairman of a small research and teaching department and now have responsibility for more people than just my own laboratory group. I’ll sometimes have meetings with students who are working on their master’s degree thesis research, talk to faculty about research grant applications they are putting in, or helping our student advisors schedule tutoring or visits to our facility by middle and high-school students around North Carolina. I have a small laboratory and will go upstairs and talk to my lab director. I usually bump into students or professors and like to have short chats with everyone to see how they are doing and if I can be of any help with their problems.

At lunchtime I usually stay at the university and grab a couple of granola bars while checking on updates to science blogs and science news services – I usually use Google Reader for scanning new posts and news searches. If there’s something that catches my eye or I need to do more digging on issues in my own field, I’ll log-in to PubMed to look up original research papers on these topics.

The afternoons will find me either in a lecture of mine or someone else’s, a seminar by a visiting scientist, traveling across town to meet with research collaborators, catching up on recent publications in my field, a meeting on students or research issues, or dealing with paperwork on student issues or our research program. Of course, the “paperwork” is often online but I have to say that I never knew quite how much documentation and behind-the-scenes work goes on in a university until I became a department chair. In the classroom right now, I’m contributing bits and pieces to four classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level: Physiology & Pharmacology, Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing, Toxicology, and Immunology & Virology. Teaching in all of these areas keeps me on my toes and I’m always on the lookout for new course material, videos, animations, or anything else that fellow bloggers or online scientists might have to improve the learning experience for my students.

Since I am fortunate that my wife can pick up our daughter at school, I stay at the university until 5:30 or 6:30. Since I live only 6 miles from the university, I can always come back to lab if I really need to but I usually go home and have dinner, then work on the computer on other stuff from home. I always make it a point to be involved in reading with our daughter and talking with her about her day. Around her bedtime is usually when I fire up a blog post which I can then schedule to post sometime the next day while I’m at work to maximize the number of people who see it. After our daughter goes to sleep, I sometimes sit up with my wife with both of our laptops, me working on my lectures, papers, or reports, and she working on her medical and public health stuff. We have not yet gotten to the point of e-mailing or IMing with each other while sitting in the same room although I know other couples who do!

You are associated with multiple prominent science blogs. What are some advantages of having an extensive online network of people and resources, especially in the world of scientific research? Are there any disadvantages?

I can give you a very recent, specific example of the benefits of networking with bloggers from around the country and around the world. I recently had to pick up responsibility for eight lectures on virology. Now, I do know a little bit about viruses and have taught pharmacy, medical and nursing students about antiviral drugs, but I have never taught about the basic biology of viruses. Fortunately, several of my blog friends have. So, I just sent out a few e-mails and posts on a discussion forum – several people sent me their lecture notes, slides, suggestions for books and other online sources of information, etc. Now I’ve got great resources from Seattle and Boston, viral animations from Calgary, and a terrific repository of all things viral from Leicester, England. My students are now getting a far higher quality of more engaging virology lectures than had I tried to struggle by myself in preparing materials from my own vantage point.

Being part of the science blogging community has also brought me friendships with professional writers and journalists, many scientists from fields outside of mine who share similar ideas and values about scientific training, and even inquiries from the so-called mainstream media for background information or interviews. While I have a certain reputation as a scientist, the practice of blogging and the networking I have done over the last three years has brought me some degree of legitimacy in interacting with science and medical journalists. This more formal extension of my interests in sharing science and medicine with the public is almost becoming a true scholarly effort where I have begun to participate in grant programs for science education and the training of journalists.

As I mentioned above, my expanded sphere of scientific friends through blogging associations has been important for another major reason. I didn’t know until late in my graduate training that I was not the kind of person who liked to toil alone in the laboratory – I am a more social animal. Even being a professor requires a certain degree of single-mindedness. While I do what I need to in order to continue to succeed in my career and help others in their career development in my focused scientific discipline, I feel energized by interacting with my new friends who come to science from philosophy, ethics, and the creative arts, other scientists who work on model organisms, drug abuse, or other areas of cancer or public health. Some of these folks are younger or older than I; many others are like me, with a partner who is also a health professional trying to negotiate the world of trying have a meaningful family life. The diversity of the networks we have each developed have revealed that there are also many common threads to all fields. We try to be allies for one another and work to create a community of equality and justice that we then try to percolate back into our areas of the daily scientific world.

The only disadvantage I can think of is that there’s never enough time to interact with everyone you want or do everything you want to do. But then again, that’s not a problem of being associated with science bloggers – that’s a common complaint of anyone these days.

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