Looking Back at 49 Years of Teaching and Research at KU

Robert Hanzlik profile imageWhen I joined the KU Department of Medicinal Chemistry as an assistant professor in 1971, I was a well-rounded chemist with a strong background in biology but little knowledge of pharmacy per se. One of the first things I learned about pharmacy in Kansas, even before I started, was that in the late 1960s Kansas became only the second state in the union to require pharmacists to earn continuing education credits on an annual basis. Back then, that fact was a significant point of pride for pharmacy in Kansas, and in those days that CE was provided entirely by the faculty of the KU School of Pharmacy, myself included.

Of course, pharmacy has changed since then, but the way that CE worked in those days was that several faculty members would conjure up and prepare short write-ups on topics that might benefit practicing pharmacists. Then, on four or five Saturdays in January and February, we would pile into a van and drive out to Colby, Hays, Salina, Wichita, or similar locations and have a big dinner with 20-30 pharmacists from all around. On Sunday afternoon, we'd put on our CE program and then pile back in the van and head for home (and teaching on Monday morning).  Over a decade of doing this, I met some really great Kansas pharmacists, and learned a lot about pharmacy and life in rural Kansas. Eventually, other options for Pharmacy CE came along and I became much more involved with teaching, research and writing grant applications - the bane of research-active faculty.

When I arrived at KU, research began literally on day one.  I was assigned a new graduate student and shown an empty lab in the new McCollum Laboratory on West Campus. Graduate student stipends then were around $2,600 per year, but not to worry - I was given a "startup package" of $6,000 with which to equip my new lab and buy supplies until I could get some grants. University research labs were much simpler then, but as a graduate student I had been spoiled by having access to a world-class mass spectrometry facilit, and once I got here, I wanted that for KU. After a couple unsuccessful attempts to secure funding, I finally got a large NIH Shared Instrumentation Grant to buy a GC/MS instrument, and the provost funded a position for a staff person to operate it. Thus was born, in 1979, the KU Mass Spectrometry Core Lab. The MSL is still operating today with multiple instruments and three full-time staff.

I eased into teaching more gradually by sitting in on the fall semester of OMA (Organic Medicinal Agents) to get a feel for pharmacy students, to whom I would soon be teaching about steroids, hormones and other topics.  During my teaching career at KU, I taught all or parts of a number of pharmacy courses, including OMA, chemistry of drug analysis, medicinal biochemistry and chemistry of disease states. The latter was a course I put together with my senior colleague and mentor Matt Mertes, in which we covered topics like cancer, viral diseases, inflammation and immunological disorders with a view to their underlying biochemistry and the potential new drugs that could be anticipated to emerge (many of which are now part of today's pharmacopoeias!). The course became quite popular and a visiting accreditation team decided it should be made a required subject. At the graduate level, I also taught bio-inorganic chemistry, drug metabolism and drug design.

I always enjoyed teaching pharmacy students, but in 2002, after 31 years at KU, my role at KU changed. I applied for and received a big NIH grant to support a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Protein Structure and Function. My co-investigator was Mary Lou Michaelis from Pharmacology and Toxicology (who had also been a coinvestigator on an NIH Training Grant that I directed from 1995-2001) and we were very capably assisted by Cynthia Beall. The COBRE grant paid a large portion of my salary as PI. With the salary release generated and a supplement provided by Dean Fincham and Provost Shulenberg, Med Chem was able to hire a new faculty member to take over my undergraduate teaching, so the Med Chem faculty grew by one, and I continued teaching graduate courses, doing research and running the COBRE Center.  COBRE-PSF helped us build three more KU Core Labs and supported almost 70 faculty members in various departments at KU, KSU, KUMC and WSU with research support, mentoring and most of all collegiality and community.  The COBRE program ran from late 2002 through May 2020 when the grants all ended and I retired as planned. 

When I joined KU, the Med Chem department had only five faculty members, so I made it six.  Over the next several decades, the department grew to a total of 13 full-time, well-funded faculty and developed a very strong reputation at home and abroad. By 2010, though, our excellent reputation became a liability as other universities started recruiting Med Chem faculty away from KU. Over the past decade, eight of our senior faculty were recruited away, while two others retired. In 2017, while planning my own impending retirement, I was drafted to step in as interim chair and stabilize the department. Fortunately, during the last four academic years, we were able to recruit one new senior and five new junior faculty, so with my retirement in May 2020, the department had a good complement of three senior and five junior faculty, and spirits were high once again. With the opening of the new Interdisciplinary Science Building (aka Gray-Little Hall) in August 2019, the Med Chem Department moved out of Malott Hall entirely and is now quartered in just two buildings, the ISB and the Shankel Structural Biology Center on west campus.

As I look back, I realize that no one ever completes a successful career totally on their own. I certainly had help at various times from some outstanding colleagues at KU, including Ed Smissman, Matt Mertes, Bob Wiley, George Traiger and Dick Schowen. I also had the good fortune to work with 52 graduate students and postdocs, many of whom I still keep in touch with.  We had been planning a big KU reunion and retirement symposium for April 2020 but while Covid-19 nixed that gathering, it didn't stop the production of a Special Issue of Medicinal Chemistry Research (29:7, July 2020, edited by Longqin Hu, Binghe Wang and Siming (Liu) Wang), in which 15 former associates honored me by contributing articles. While at KU I also had a chance to develop a rapport with many scientists from Pharma whom I met through annual summer Gordon Research Conferences, and with whom I was able to help establish the International Society for the Study of Xenobiotics. I am pleased that next year ISSX will celebrate its 40th anniversary as the premier international society for drug metabolism scientists.

Overall, I consider myself very fortunate to have landed at KU and to have had such a rich and rewarding career. In gratitude, Lois and I have established the Bob and Lois Hanzlik Fund for Medicinal Chemistry at the KU Endowment Association as a match to funds that Med Chem alumni contributed to the "Mission Impossible" campaign of 2019. Collectively, these funds will support the department by supporting graduate students and the graduate program in Medicinal Chemistry for years to come.  Lois and I wish the department and the school all the best for the future.