At first glance, Bryan Roth doesn’t look like the typical award-winning scientist.
The Hawaiian shirt-wearing, Grateful Dead-listening, Zen-practicing Roth calls himself “Big Kahuna” in his personal and professional lives, but also is the most recent recipient of a prestigious 0national award for pharmacology.
The award is only one of many Roth has received, proving that scientists don’t have to wear a lab coat to command the utmost respect in their fields. And in keeping with his laid-back demeanor, Roth jokingly deflected the credit for his success.
“It’s a team effort — they do all the work,” he said of the cadre of scientists working under him.
And those assistants have generally responded well to his style.
“When I went to med school over a decade ago, they asked me to name three people who I wanted to meet in the department,” said Vincent Setola, a research assistant professor who followed Roth from Case Western Reserve University to UNC. “I looked right at them and said, ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan.’”
A groundbreaking career inspired by schizophrenic relatives has spanned two decades, and often revolves around the study of how drugs interact with the brain’s receptors and neurotransmitters. Last month, he won the 2011 PhRMA Foundation Award in Excellence for Pharmacology/Toxicology for his achievements.
Roth came to UNC’s Department of Pharmacology from Case Western in 2006, and has since presided over a research lab known for its work with psychoactive drugs.
“He isn’t afraid to challenge conventional dogmas and is constantly looking for new ways to look at past problems,” said Wes Kroeze, a research assistant professor in Roth’s lab. “If you present your data at a Roth Lab meeting, you can get it published anywhere.”
Roth said one of his proudest achievements was in 1997, when he helped expose dangerous side effects of the anti-obesity drug Fen-phen, which resulted in one of the largest product liability settlements in history.
Recently, Roth and his team discovered a unique new way to use salvia, a hallucinogenic drug, for therapeutic uses, Setola said.
Setola said despite his brilliance, Roth is extremely loyal and values the success of his associates.
“Bryan wants you to come to his lab to contribute your talents, but also learn things and grow to move on as independent investigators,” he said.
Kroeze said Roth’s selflessness is further embodied in his professional approach: Roth constantly consults both undergraduates and respected researchers, and he focuses more on sharing his research with the scientific community than worrying about his own achievements.
Setola said Roth humbly didn’t even announce that he had won the award to the lab.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to send an email around to everyone advertising.’”
By Harrison Okin
Psychoactives expert takes unconventional path to award