When David B. Roll arrived at the University of Utah in 1967, he and two other new hires were Nos. 7, 8 and 9 on the list of instructors in the School of Pharmacy.
Thirty-four years later, "We're still here. But now the faculty is up to 30," and the U. pharmacy school has a national reputation for research and is turning out students who are in demand and commanding high salaries upon graduation, Roll said.
After more than three decades in the classroom and in the lab, Roll is taking early retirement from the U. and moving into the national pharmacy arena as an adviser and consultant. This fall, he will be a Congressional Fellow for the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy in Washington, D.C. In conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, program fellows receive a two-week orientation, then are matched with a member of Congress as an adviser on pharmaceutical issues.
That's an interesting challenge for a scientist who thinks Congress has sometimes overstepped some practical scientific boundaries in setting policy on medications — particularly dietary supplements and other combinations that are sold to the public. Some of these products lack the safety of the scientifically developed standards that are applied to other medications, thanks to those same congressmen, he said.
"Legislators shouldn't be calling the shots on things they don't know anything about," he says. But since Congress has, in fact, became a major player in the world of pharmaceuticals, he welcomes a chance to see that the Washington lawmakers get reliable input.
Roll became interested in dietary supplements because "many of my students wanted to know more about them." So he developed expertise that soon engaged him in the national debate regarding what oversight, if any, should be required of this class of largely uncontrolled substances.
"In some regards, I've changed my own mind (about food supplements,)" Roll concedes. "There is a rational case for some of these products — the mainstream kind of vitamins and minerals." But he draws the line at "ground-up organs and some of the herbs. The science just isn't there" to support claims that they can do what their proponents claim. "It isn't all hype, but let the buyer beware."
The buying public assumes that "someone is keeping tabs" on anything offered for human consumption, but in fact, "no one is" in this case, Roll said.
In 1990, he served on the Vitamins, Minerals and Enteral Products Committee of the United States Pharmacopeia and he currently heads the USP Expert Committee on Non-Botanical Dietary Supplements. He has been a consultant for several pharmaceutical companies and advisory boards. Publicly, he has added his voice to issues including dietary supplements, health fraud and water fluoridation.
The food supplement issue is just one area in pharmaceutical research in which U. experts have gained national reputations, he said. For more than 25 years, every major pharmaceutical advance in the treatment of epilepsy has passed through U. research programs. And the Utah school is among the top three institutions in the United States in the number of National Institutes of Health grants awarded for pharmaceutical research, Roll said.
He says he is merely "basking in reflected glory," but a number of prestigious awards suggest otherwise. During the May Pharmacy School convocation, he received the Lawrence C. and Delores M. Weaver Award in recognition of "extraordinary contributions as teacher, student advocate, faculty leader, academic administrator and ardent supporter of the pharmacy profession."
He also has won the U. Presidential Teaching Scholar Award, the College of Pharmacy's Distinguished Teaching Award and the Students' Choice Award for Teaching. His most recent assignment has been as associate dean for academic affairs, but the role he most relishes is instructor and mentor to two generations of pharmacy students.
During the May convocation, a scholarship in his name was announced. It will assist a student interested in "promoting the role of the pharmacist in health promotion and disease prevention," Roll said. He sees the expanding role of pharmacists as a natural evolution in America's health-care system. Partly because of the increasing complexity of drugs and medicines, the pharmacist has become a less passive member of the health-care team, he believes.
With a teaching career behind him, Roll looks forward to a front-seat view in Washington as important issues regarding patients' rights, Medicare and the availability of medications — particularly for the elderly — are debated.
"This will be an exciting time to be in the capital," he said.