From auto parts to cell parts

Leigh MacMillan, Ph.D.
Published: October, 2007

Jack Roberts wasn’t supposed to become a scientist.

Edwin Rogers, Ph.D., accompanied by his dog, Sasha, gives a biology lesson at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, in 1973.
Courtesy of Cornell College
When he started his undergraduate studies at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, he planned to learn some things about business and return home to run his family’s three auto parts companies. A chance elective—a physiology course taught by Edwin Rogers, Ph.D., a biology professor everyone called “Doc”—changed the course of his life.

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

But something about the way “Doc” taught; the way he made students think and ask questions—along with the material itself—captivated him.

“I thought, this is really, really interesting stuff,” Roberts recalled. So he followed his first science course with another, and then another. He went on to medical school at the University of Iowa, residency training, a fellowship in clinical pharmacology, and an illustrious scientific career.

In 2007, Roberts elected to recognize the man who sparked his interest in science by naming an endowed chair at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in his honor. Roberts is the first holder of the T. Edwin Rogers Chair in Pharmacology.

Rogers, now in his 90s, said in 2007 that he was “astonished” when Roberts called “out of the blue” to talk to him about the honor. Though Roberts had earned his bachelor’s degree in 1965, Rogers remembered 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 his student.

“I guess there are lots of people we touch… that we never know 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.” Anti-oxidants including vitamins E and C combat the damage of free radicals.

With the late 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. This discovery has made it possible for researchers to reliably detect and monitor oxidative stress—something that hadn’t been possible before.

“Measuring isoprostanes has been shown to be far and away the most accurate way to assess oxidative stress status in vivo,” Roberts said. “This has allowed us to define a fundamental role for free radicals in the pathogenesis of a remarkably diverse, large number of diseases.”

Isoprostanes have been used to implicate free radicals in atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases, the normal aging process, and other diseases, suggesting value for anti-oxidant therapeutics, a subject of research in many laboratories.

In 2006 Roberts received top honors for his research: the Earl Sutherland Prize for Achievement in Research from Vanderbilt University and the Discovery Award from the Society for Free Radical Biology and Medicine.

In June 2007, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award for Achievement from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Joining Roberts at the banquet table in Iowa City was “Doc.” It was the first time the two had seen each other in more than 40 years.

“If he hadn’t sparked my interest in science, I would be running our family’s auto parts companies,” Roberts said, adding with a smile, “how boring.”

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