January 26, 2007

Roberts honors instructor who sparked his interest in science

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Jack Roberts, M.D.

Roberts honors instructor who sparked his interest in science

When Jack Roberts, M.D., started his undergraduate studies at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, he expected to learn some things about business and return home to run his family's three auto parts companies.

But instead of going home, he went on to medical school and beyond to a career as a renowned scientist.

The turning point, he said, was a physiology course taught by T. Edwin Rogers, Ph.D., a biology professor everyone called “Doc.” Roberts has elected to recognize the man who sparked his interest in science by naming a newly endowed chair in his honor. Roberts will hold the T. Edwin Rogers Chair in Pharmacology.

“I had no aspirations to go into science in any way, shape or form,” Roberts said. “It had never even crossed my mind.”

Something about the way Rogers taught, the way he made students think and ask questions — along with the material itself — captivated him, Roberts recalled.

“I never would have gone into science if it hadn't been for Doc,” Roberts said.

Rogers, now 90, said he was “astonished” when Roberts called “out of the blue” to talk to him about the honor. Though Roberts was a student of his more than 40 years ago, Rogers remembers him well.

“His mind was so active,” Rogers recalled. “He was constantly asking questions and making contributions. His participation kept the class at a much higher level than I'd ever seen it, including for the professor.”

Rogers was not aware of the impact he'd made on the young Roberts, he said.

“I guess there are lots of people we touch like that that we never know about. He's one of the few that I've found out about,” he said. “I am very highly flattered and pleased about the named chair. I can't begin to explain how much this honor means to me.”

Roberts is internationally renowned for his research related to free radicals — highly reactive molecules derived from oxygen. Damage to the body's cells and cellular components by free radicals is called “oxidative stress.”

With Jason Morrow, M.D., Roberts discovered a series of compounds called isoprostanes that are produced when free radicals attack the lipid building blocks in cell membranes. The discovery of isoprostanes provided researchers with a tool for detecting and monitoring oxidative stress in disease.

Isoprostanes have been used to implicate free radicals in atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases, the normal aging process, and a large number of other diseases.

Last fall, Roberts was awarded Vanderbilt's highest research honor, the Earl Sutherland Prize for Achievement in Research.

He also received the 2006 Discovery Award from the Society for Free Radical Biology and Medicine for his discovery and pioneering studies of isoprostanes.