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Covering All the Bases

Wayne Bowen (pictured left), a trained biochemist and pharmacologist, returned to Brown University in September 2004 as a professor of biology, after completing research stints in academia, industry, and government. His recent appointment to Brown is his second at the institution after teaching biology there from 1983 to 1991, and it marks the beginning of another chapter in his lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

From Organic Chemistry to Biochemistry to Pharmacology

Bowen grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where he attended Morgan State College (now Morgan State University) and received a B.S. in chemistry in 1974. During his senior year of college, he studied a field that sparked his interest: biochemistry. The field fascinated him because he learned how cells perform the same chemical reactions he did in the chemistry lab.

In addition, during his senior year, Jim Birnie, an executive at Smith Kline and French Laboratories (now GlaxoSmithKline), recruited Bowen for a summer internship. Birnie, an African-American graduate of Cornell University, had a profound influence on Bowen. "He steered me toward biochemistry ... and steered me to apply to Cornell," Bowen admits.

As an intern at Smith Kline and French in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bowen was a medicinal chemist, charged with finding a more selective agonist--an active binding agent--to be used in a spray to treat asthmatics. "Having this growing interest in biology, I got interested in what happens to the compounds after they were made," Bowen explains. "How were they tested? How did [scientists] find out whether they did what they were supposed to do?" Eventually, a lab tech in the biology department showed him how the company's biochemists and pharmacologists tested newly developed compounds.

Bowen soon found himself becoming interested in pharmacology, after the lab tech gave him a Scientific American article on the subject written by Nobel Laureate Julius Axelrod. Pharmacology interested Bowen so much that he decided to study it as a graduate student at Cornell. He earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1981, studying cholesterol biosynthesis in the laboratory of James Gaylor. However, he took a minor in neurobiology, neuropharmacology to be precise, as part of the requirements.

At Cornell, Bowen wrote a research proposal to examine the mechanism of action between opiates and their receptors, a mechanism that was largely unknown at the time. "In doing that project, I learned a lot about who is in the field, who is doing what, and what was already known," he says. Writing the proposal gave Bowen the background knowledge he needed to pursue a postdoc in opiate pharmacology. Candace Pert, a noted opiate researcher, recruited him to join her lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Having completed his postdoc in 1983, Bowen took a position as a biology professor at Brown University. There, he continued his opiate-receptor research, but a particular opiatelike receptor, named "sigma," began to monopolize his attention. Located in the central nervous system and peripheral tissues, sigma receptors bind opiates and various antipsychotic drugs. These ubiquitous receptors have been implicated in cell development, cell proliferation, and even cancer. Bowen's lab studied several sigma receptor areas, including signal-transduction pathways, novel binding elements (both agonists and antagonists), and clinical applications.

A Wanted Researcher

Kenner Rice, a colleague and collaborator at NIH, asked Bowen to join him at NIH. Rice wanted someone with Bowen's experience in medicinal chemistry and pharmacology. Although Bowen loved academia, he wanted to concentrate more on his research without consistent teaching or administrative duties. Also, NIH offered him more resources than Brown did. Bowen joined the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in 1991 as chief of the Unit on Receptor Biochemistry and Pharmacology, in the Drug Design and Synthesis Section of the Laboratory of Medicinal Chemistry.

Bowen, however, never severed his ties to Brown nor discontinued his sigma receptor research, remaining an adjunct faculty member and lecturing as his schedule permitted. And although Brown had been coaxing him to return during his time at NIH, changes implemented under its new president, Ruth Simmons, prompted his eventual return.

Having experience in both academia and government, Bowen understands the differences. Researchers in academia, he notes, must depend more on one another, because few academic labs are fully equipped. In this respect, the wealth of NIH can be a disadvantage. "They are sort of insular at NIH," Bowen says. "You really have to make an effort to go out and find collaborators." But doing so is essential. "Nobody can do everything themselves," he adds.

Advice for Aspiring Scientists

Bowen helps prepare his students for the rigors of science by emphasizing writing. "If you can't communicate your work, how are you going to get it out there?" Bowen asks. The key to improving students' writing skills is by having them rewrite and edit their work. Bowen also encourages his students to ask him why he makes particular edits to their work.

Bowen relishes mentoring undergraduates--another reason he returned to Brown. He notes that having a good mentor is crucial for a scientist's professional development while recalling how mentors have helped his career. "If you're a good mentor, you can get good work out of people," Bowen explains.

Bowen also stresses intangibles such as a good sense of humor and resilience, because scientists must be prepared to handle scathing criticism, some of it deserved. After all, he notes, every aspect of being a scientist is a learning process. In career management, as in science, everyone should expect to make mistakes. "No experiment is a complete waste," Bowen advises. "My philosophy--as I saw it as a student--was that every experiment you do tells you something."

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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