Staying Unique for Over 40 Years: Beginnings and Evolution of UCSD Biomedical Sciences

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By Samantha Jones

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Larry Brunton and Palmer Taylor, two Biomedical Sciences (BMS) faculty members who have been here at UCSD for decades, helping to guide and shape the program. They set the record straight on the founding of BMS, its progression over the years, and the excitement and struggle that go into creating a less than conventional graduate program that not only survived, but rose to the top, in an intense academic environment.

Larry Brunton is an Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology & Medicine, and the current Editor-in-Chief of the widely known and well-respected Goodman and Gilman’s The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, a position he has held since 2003.

Palmer Taylor is a Professor of Pharmacology & Medicine, the founding Chair of the Department of Pharmacology, and the founding Dean of the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. He previously served as co-editor of Goodman and Gilman’s The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, to which he still contributes a chapter, and was co-editor of Principles of Drug Action.

Outside of their honors, awards, and well-recognized contributions to the pharmacological sciences, Larry and Palmer know how to have some fun. Larry is a percussionist, playing at a Latin jazz jam in Barrio Logan the night before we met for the interview, and Palmer is an avid trout fisherman, recently coming back from a trip to New Zealand. Now, who said scientists are boring?

There’s no life east of the Interstate 5

The UCSD School of Medicine opened its doors in 1968. At that time, the Biology department had already been in existence for a few years, accruing a number of distinguished faculty members, who were responsible for all of the basic science teaching for the medical students.

The founding Chair of the Department of Medicine, Dr. Eugene Braunwald, along with much of the medical school faculty, were dissatisfied with this teaching arrangement. Dr. Braunwald made it clear that, if he was going to leave the NIH for UCSD, it was imperative that the medical school make its own appointments in physiology, pharmacology, and microbiology. He agreed for the Biology department to still teach cell and molecular biology, as well as biochemistry, deeming those other areas less aligned with the practice of medicine at the time.

Picture UCSD in 1968: Only Revelle College existed, there was no engineering program, no La Jolla Playhouse, no RIMAC, no (gasp) coveted coffee carts. You name it, and it probably was not here yet. “In the early days, there was this belief that UCSD would be the CalTech of the UC system,” says Palmer. “But that viewpoint dissipated as people realized that San Diego is a large community and what was needed was a full university, much like it is today.”

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Bird’s-eye view of UCSD in the early 1970s

When Palmer arrived in San Diego at the end of 1970, UCSD Biomedical Sciences was nonexistent. “If you looked out east of the Biomedical Sciences Building, all you could see was chaparral. There were no buildings—University Towne Center didn’t even exist yet,” says Larry. Palmer laughs, “There was one sandwich shop on the corner across from where Rock Bottom now sits. The saying back then was, ‘There’s no life east of Interstate 5.’”

New kid on the block

The start of the medical school brought conflict with the existing basic science departments on UCSD’s main campus. Tensions only grew in the early 1970’s, when what would eventually become BMS got started. “Biology was not happy, but since they did not have expertise in physiology or pharmacology, they would let us call our program just that,” says Palmer. Palmer recalls antagonism between certain faculty in the School of Medicine and Department of Biology. “Gilman drive seemed like a state line, or even the border between two countries,” he says. “That being said, others were comfortable with this new arrangement. Many recognized that such growth would be inevitable, since the NIH was dwarfing other agencies in funding potential.”

In addition to these on-campus disagreements, medical educators (nationally) criticized the UCSD Medical School for having no basic science departments. Instead, the traditional basic medical sciences, such as pharmacology, physiology, and biochemistry, were all hidden away as divisions within the Department of Medicine: co-existing yet independent. Larry remembers, “This made the School of Medicine somewhat of an outcast compared to traditional programs on the East Coast, who believed that you could not have a school of medicine without stand-alone basic science departments.”

According to Larry, Dr. Steven Mayer, who came to head the division of Pharmacology within the Department of Medicine, was at the receiving end of much of this hostility. “Steve took a lot of grief, nationally, for coming to UCSD and ‘degrading’ pharmacology to a division within the School of Medicine and not having it be its own department. The Pharmacology Society (ASPET) really did not like that.”

The program started off small, as most do, but it was self-sufficient, standing on its own. “Steve was very forward thinking,” says Larry, “he hired Palmer—one of the best things I think he ever did.” Palmer, always humble, shakes off the compliment, but Larry continues, “It was. And it was Steve, Palmer, pulmonary physiologist John West, renal physiologist Darrell Fanestil, endocrinologist Gordon Gill, cardiovascular physiologists James Covell and John Ross, and a handful of other scientists who then banded together and started the Physiology and Pharmacology graduate program, named after the strongest focus of the disciplines in the program itself.”

There was no formal admissions process when the Physiology and Pharmacology program first started—faculty would join the program, including some from Biology and Chemistry, and bring along their graduate students from their former university, which meant there were few students. The third (and one of the most well known) students to graduate from the program was Vietnam War veteran Craig Venter. “Craig served in the medical corps and had seen some intense medical trauma,” says Palmer. “He came back after the war to finish his undergraduate education and was convinced by chemistry professor Nate Kaplan to join the new Physiology and Pharmacology program.” Craig is now best known for his contributions to sequencing the human genome, and founding Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research, the J. Craig Venter Institute, and Human Longevity Inc.

The program expands

Larry arrived at UCSD in 1976, after completing his PhD at the University of Virginia, to begin a postdoctoral research position in Steve Mayer’s laboratory. Upon arrival, Larry recalls, “It became clear to me that Palmer Taylor was one of the leading scientists in the Department of Medicine.” Around 1978, Palmer asked Larry if he could aid in spreading the word about the Physiology and Pharmacology program, as they now had the training grant money to do so. Palmer gave Larry a small budget to travel to a few campuses and to advertise in college newspapers. “Palmer was very enlightened in trying to make this a national program,” says Larry.

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Physiology and Pharmacology brochure circa 1982

In the early 1980s, the administration of the Physiology and Pharmacology program consisted of a rotating program chair, a small steering committee, and a part-time secretary. Around this time, Larry became co-chair of admissions for the program along with Odile Matthieu-Costello of pulmonary physiology. In the late 1970s, only four to five students were enrolling each year; a decade later, the annual enrollment was around twelve, with first year students supported by training grants in Pharmacology, Cardiology, and Pulmonary Physiology. By the early 1990s, additional faculty received NIH training grants that in part helped bump enrollment up to around twenty students per each admitted class. Today, the average incoming class size approaches thirty students.

Interest in the program grew quickly, amongst both faculty and students. “Slowly, it became clear that the title, ‘Physiology and Pharmacology’ was not going to encompass all of the scientists in the program,” says Larry. Geoff Rosenfeld was creating a lot of activity in molecular endocrinology and other areas were rapidly expanding as well. For years, there were intense discussions surrounding the program name, and the necessity of a title that would encompass all, not just a narrow window of, research areas. “There was a lot of resistance to changing the name of the program,” says Larry. “But we just started referring to it as ‘biomedical science’ and it caught on. Soon, there were enough scientists of different stripes in the program that we had a majority on the steering committee so that, in 1987, we officially changed it to the ‘Biomedical Sciences’ graduate program.”

Origins of the academic training grant: A lesson in politics and the Cold War

“It’s important to remember why these training grants were available in the first place,” says Larry. “We actually have the Soviet Union to thank for their existence.”

In October of 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, into orbit and the country went on high alert. “I was only 10 years old,” says Larry, “but I can still remember this panic.” The Federal government responded with the National Defense Education Act. “The idea, in the end, was to support almost any laboratory science, and that funding included training grants.”

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A Soviet Union technician with Sputnik before its launch

A little over a decade later, the Nixon administration attempted to do away with training grants altogether. “As a program, we applied for a training grant and were awarded, but then all of a sudden we couldn’t get the money,” recalls Palmer. “Richard Nixon had impounded all funds for NIH training.” Fortunately, the Supreme Court ruled Nixon’s action unconstitutional, and outside the bounds of the Executive office. “If something like this were to happen again with our current government,” says Palmer, uneasily. “I can’t say that things would be ruled in favor of scientific endeavor and training.”

The program evolves

“It’s so important to have institutional memory,” says Larry, “One reason being that you
can see how a program has evolved: what worked, what didn’t, how far it has come.”

A lot has changed over the years with the ebb and flow of political climates, the rise of innovative medical advancements, and the growth of non-academic opportunities available to graduate students after obtaining a PhD.

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From Left to Right (faculty in bold): Joan Kanter (technician in the Mayer Lab), Harvey Kaslow (now faculty at USC), Joan Heller Brown, Larry Brunton, Steven Mayer, Susan Taylor, Paul Insel, Palmer Taylor, Vince Dionne, Mort Printz

One thing that has dramatically improved and expanded since the outset of the program is the coursework. “At first, we accepted excellent graduate students and threw them into the first year of the medical curriculum. They had trouble with it,” says Larry. He and other professors quickly realized that the medical students were excellent at memorizing and test taking, but that the graduate students were getting frustrated with the lack of emphasis on asking questions and not being allowed to systematically reason their way through problems. “They would look at a multiple choice question and see multiple possibilities,” Larry laughs. “It was just a different type of thinking.”

Pharmacology and Physiology developed a separate curriculum where students could delve more deeply into content, and argue their hypotheses. “In the end, we wanted our students to have the skills to create new knowledge,” says Larry. Even today, new courses are frequently added that address the diversity of student interests and skills.

The ongoing fight for a diverse group of faculty and students

In the early 1990s, Larry recalls sitting at a cardiology division meeting discussing job applicants and looking around at a room filled entirely with men. “When I mentioned, ‘Hey, we’re sitting in a room full of men, why haven’t we hired any women?’ I was met with such resistance,” Larry remembers. They were about to hire a man, but Larry asked to see a full group of candidates. “I called around to cardiovascular researchers and got the names of women who were highly qualified and very prominent in the field.” One of those women was granted an interview, but wasn’t hired. “That wouldn’t happen now, but I mention it because I believe it’s so important that we understand and continue to fight for everything that has been achieved over the last 30 years,” says Larry. “I’m always afraid that, otherwise, these things may disappear. Issues like diversity and equal opportunity require constant effort.”

Larry pushes the same sentiment for students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. “In the early years, we were excluding people we maybe didn’t know as much about, who would be great scientists,” says Larry. “If, for example, someone grows up speaking a language other than English, there’s a strong possibility that they won’t test well on the GRE.” Larry was met with some opposition when he first pushed for placing a greater importance on letters of recommendation and interviews, versus GRE scores. Ultimately, the GRE became less of an important part of a student’s application.

“I naively thought, ‘we can just solve this by making some new admissions directives,’ but I’ve realized over the years that we need to work on this all the time, otherwise the system may revert to its old ways. We need to recognize that there is still an inequality of educational opportunity.”

Although Larry is optimistic, it is a cautious optimism. “I think we are making headway, but that requires continual maintenance, something I would be remiss not to mention.”

Maintaining Its Individuality

The Biomedical Sciences program is truly unique. Of all the graduate schools I interviewed with, the UCSD students and faculty made, by far, the most positive impression and I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. Even as a fourth year graduate student I have no regrets, and that really says something.

So what has allowed BMS to be so successful, yet stay so unique?

“When I first visited UCSD, I took a bus up to campus from downtown La Jolla to see where I would be working,” Larry remembers. “I got off the bus and asked where the medical school was. I was pointed to a single building [the Biomedical Sciences Building] and was a bit shocked. I was used to Harvard and the University of Virginia, where the medical schools occupied many buildings and had their own campuses.” Larry laughs, “I thought, ‘ah well, I’ll only be here a couple of years for a postdoc.’”

Larry and other pharmacologists (Joan Heller Brown was a senior postdoc at the time) were all in one hallway of the Biomedical Sciences Building, and the other basic scientists were nearby.  Such proximity promoted communication between faculty and researchers from different fields. That closeness and collaborative environment early on, in part, helped shape BMS into what it is today.

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Palmer Taylor and Joan Heller Brown in the early days of the program

In addition, many of these faculty members were prominent in national societies. Steven Mayer, the founding member of the division of pharmacology, was president of ASPET (the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics) in the late 1970s, for which Palmer served as president about a decade later. At the same time Susan Taylor, Palmer’s wife, was president of ASBMB (the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology). “[They were so busy that] I think Palmer and Susan would just wave hello across the Chicago airport when traveling to and from meetings, otherwise, they may not have seen much of each other for a few years there,” Larry jokes. Faculty in cancer biology, endocrinology, and physiology also held positions in respective prestigious societies, helping elevate UCSD biomedical research to a national platform. “You can’t have a leading graduate program without a diverse research profile,” stresses Palmer.

Looking Toward the Future

Funding has been a trending topic (and source of stress) for years now, and the cost of training graduate students is approaching the cost of hiring a new postdoctoral researcher, who is often considered a more desirable hire as they bring with them a larger degree of experience, and often new techniques, to a lab.

“I believe in the importance of training,” says Larry. “Yes, we must produce data, but at an educational institution part of our necessary role is to produce new scientists. We are in a results-oriented society as opposed to a training-oriented one, and we need a good combination of the two.”

As we look toward the future of science research, Larry is optimistic that, at least in California, a strong interest in science will remain. “We must stay active,” he says, stressing the obligation we have as scientists to stand up for science research and education on a greater scale.

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