Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2008

The learning curve: Adaptation helps KU professor with renowned work in pharmaceutical chemistry

Val Stella, Kansas University professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, is best known for his work in drug degradation kinetics.

Val Stella, Kansas University professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, is best known for his work in drug degradation kinetics.

August 16, 2008

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Most people in the world of pharmaceutical chemistry know Val Stella as a renowned researcher and educator.

What they don't know is he has a learning disability that has forced him to adapt since he was young.

"I just seem to process visual information a little differently," he said. "I seem to be able to 'connect the dots' in a way that may have been facilitated by my need to read slowly and carefully because of this processing difference."

That difference may have actually helped the Kansas University professor of pharmaceutical chemistry through the years.

Jeff Krise, a former student of Stella's who now is an associate professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at KU, says Stella can understand complex concepts because of the way he processes information.

"He has an unparalleled work ethic," Krise said. "He is not someone that I could say has everything come easy to him."

He added: "I think that a good teacher is someone who understands the material they are teaching at its most fundamental level. This is very true in the case of Val."

Background

Stella, now 61, was born in Melbourne, Australia. He's in his 36th year at KU, and he's still pushing the boundaries of pharmacy education.

"My colleagues and I will teach two online, real-time courses this fall," he said.

The online courses aim to educate scientists working in pharmaceutical companies, especially in the United States, but he expects some to participate from as far away as India and Saudi Arabia.

Stella is best known for his work in the area of drug degradation kinetics, which involves the way medicines are absorbed by the body. He also has helped to develop prodrugs, which break down and release active drugs once they are delivered to the body. He also has worked on drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lymphoma.

After earning a bachelor's degree in 1967 from Victorian College of Pharmacy in Victoria, Australia, Stella studied for his doctorate at KU under renowned pharmacy professor Takeru Higuchi.

Despite his own drug-development success, Stella says he's most proud of the students and post-doctoral scientists who have worked in his laboratory.

"Stella has excelled as a researcher and an entrepreneur over the past 35 years, (and) has never lost his love for teaching and his desire to share his knowledge with professional pharmacy students, graduate students, post-doctoral students and visiting scientists," said Ron Borchardt, a long-time colleague at KU. "He has insisted on maintaining a heavy teaching load and has been successful in cloning himself with a significant number of his 'academic' children."

One of those "children" is Kent Amsberry, a principal research scientist at Eli Lily and Company. He graduated from KU in 1990.

"The main thing I learned from Val was the importance of understanding the scientific fundamentals," Amsberry said.

Amsberry describes Stella as "an outstanding communicator and a very good educator."

Stella has published more than 300 papers, authored or co-authored six books and holds more than 34 patents. He is the inventor or co-inventor of the anti-seizure drug Fosphenytoin, the anti-AIDS drug Viread, and his solubilizing agent, Captisol, is now used in four FDA-approved products.

With new anesthetic drug, Aquavan, just completing clinical trails and a new drug application filed with the FDA, Stella is in no hurry to retire.

Stella, currently a member of the Lawrence-Douglas County Biosciences Authority, was named a "Big Thinker" by KansasBio.

When Stella isn't teaching, writing, traveling or working in the laboratory, he enjoys gardening, KU sports and collecting art.

"I have a big collection of Australian aboriginal art that includes barks, sculptures and acrylics on canvas," he said. "I have only just begun to explore African and African-American art, but I am also interested in First Nation art of Canada."

Stella says he enjoys local artists Dave Van Hee and Roger Shimomura. Stella, who jokes that he needs seven to nine hours of "beauty sleep" each night, enjoys reading the books of Malcolm Gladwell and books on the Middle East by Rory Stewart and Robert Kaplan.

Stella, who is always eager to teach, shared his favorite quote from Buck O'Neill: "I never learned to hate. Hate eats you up."

Stella also was the 1987 recipient of the H.O.P.E. Award and given the Graduate Teacher Award for Pharmaceutical Chemistry (2001 and 2005) from KU's Center for Teaching Excellence.

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