Interviews with Scientists: Dr Bryan Roth
Here at Hello Bio, we are absolutely thrilled to speak to Dr. Bryan L. Roth MD, PhD for the latest in our Interviews with Scientists series.
Dr. Roth is the Michael Hooker Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine. After receiving his MD and PhD in Biochemistry from St. Louis University in 1983, he subsequently trained in pharmacology (NIH), molecular biology, and psychiatry at Stanford. Throughout his career, he has published more than 400 papers in the area of the molecular pharmacology of drug actions, has more than 40 patents, and has founded two companies.
Elected to the National Academy of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Roth has received many honors including the Goodman and Gilman Award for Receptor Pharmacology (ASPET; 2016), the PhRMA Foundation Excellence in Pharmacology Award, and a NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Award. He has also been named a Thompson Reuters ‘Highly Cited Scientist’ in Pharmacology and in Biology and Biochemistry.
Having given many endowed lectures including the Goodman, Koppyani, Strongwater, Niznik, Swammerdam, Lowenthal, S.G. Fergusson, Chauncy Leake and Philip S. Portoghese Lectures, Dr. Rith and has been named the 2018 IUHPAR Lecturer in Analytical Pharmacology (IUPHAR), the 2017 Martin S. Rodbell Lecturer, and the inaugural 2017 Elliot Saul Vessell Visiting Professor.
Dr. Roth, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us! First, we always ask, what was your PhD in?
My PhD was in Biochemistry. I studied opioid receptors, and discovered back in the early 1980s that opioid receptors were found on intracellular membranes as well as on synapses. At the time this was somewhat heretical, but now it is well established that G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) actually signal via intracellular receptors as well as those on the plasma membrane.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
From my teen years I was interested in how drugs affect the brain, and when I heard about the concept of ‘receptors’ in undergraduate school in Montana I realized that what I really should look into were receptors. I also was trained as a Psychiatrist (I’m an MD/PhD) and my long-term goal has been to use the insights we’ve obtained to create better treatments for individuals with schizophrenia. I have family members who suffer from this illness.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
I always urge folks to study what they are passionate about.
What did you enjoy most about your PhD?
Doing experiments in the lab—I literally felt energized doing experiments, waiting for the data and finally analyzing it!
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment…
We’re busy solving structures of receptors and using this information to discover new medications.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
I get up around 4am and practice zazen (a type of formal zen meditation) at home and at a local zen center (10 minutes from my house) until around 7:45 or so. Then I eat breakfast with my wife, catch up on things, take the dogs for a walk, and then go into the lab around 9 or so. The rest of the day I chat with folks in the lab, re-write papers, answer email, and look at data. I try to head to the gym for an hour or so to lift weights and work out on the elliptical. I aim to be home around 6 or so, and as a rule do not take work home, nor do I answer emails at home! I spend time with my wife and dogs and relax for a few hours with them before bed.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
Probably a psychiatrist.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
I spend a fair amount of time with formal meditation practice. Monthly one-day retreats and then a couple of longer retreats (5-7 days) each year. My wife and I enjoy reading and traveling.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
Every time I see a new structure from my lab it is tremendously exciting.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
Ray Stevens has been a huge inspiration for me the past decade or so. Whenever I work on a project with him it quickly becomes all-consuming (in a nice way). He is always urging us to bring new insights into our work.
What’s your favourite science quote?
My favorite quote comes from my zen teacher: “Expect the unexpected.”
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
In the life sciences - the structure of DNA. From there the rest is just filling in the details.
Thank you so much, Dr. Roth!
You can follow Dr. Roth on Twitter @zenbrainest