"If you are not flexible, the road to your ‘ideal’ goal can be difficult.”
Gamecock alumnus Tucker A. Patterson (1992 Ph.D. pharmaceutical sciences) has learned to value adaptability throughout his impressive career in neuropharmacology and toxicology. Currently serving as director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research, he cites his graduate research at USC as setting him on the path to this role.
Tell us about what you do:
I am currently the director of the National Center for Toxicological Research. NCTR is part of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and is the only center within the agency located outside of the D.C. beltway. NCTR was established in 1971 as a research arm of the FDA. My graduate work in the College of Pharmacy allowed me to pursue research into Alzheimer’s disease. It was this initial research that set me on a career path in neuroscience, neuropharmacology and neurotoxicology. After graduation I continued my training as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy in the Department of Pharmacodynamics where I transitioned into the field of toxicology.
Since beginning as a postdoctoral fellow at NCTR in 1994, I have held several positions including staff fellow, research biologist, general health scientist, associate director of Regulatory Compliance & Risk Management, associate director for Science & Policy, deputy director for Research, and director. Currently, I oversee approximately 300 government staff who conduct scientific research to provide reliable data for the FDA’s decision-making and develop innovative tools and approaches that support the FDA’s public health mission.
Why did you choose the University of South Carolina?
I was seeking a graduate program in pharmacology and really desired to leave my home state of Arkansas to experience a different environment. I was recently married, and my wife does not enjoy the cold weather. The Pharmaceutical Sciences Ph.D. program in the USC College of Pharmacy checked all the boxes.
How did you originally get interested in your field?
As an undergraduate student, I enrolled in a pharmacology course, and it was fascinating. I had finally found a field of science that did not force me to choose between chemistry, biology and pharmacy. I could do all three within this course of study.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As many children do, I wanted to be a professional athlete. My sport was basketball and I played it day and night. When I was in my teens and came to the realization that I was unlikely to grow to be 7 feet tall or have a vertical jump of more than one foot, I started thinking about an alternate path. I really loved science, all science (biology, chemistry, etc.), so I figured I would have a career in either science or the medical field.
What is your favorite memory from graduate school?
During my years as a graduate student, I served as a teaching assistant for pharmacology and pharmaceutical laboratory courses. My co-teaching assistant and I would spend late nights devising challenging tests for the pharmacy students. These sessions were not only fun but also helped me immensely in my course of study.
Also, one summer several students and professors in the College of Pharmacy decided to form an intramural softball team. We certainly weren’t the most athletic team on the field but surprisingly we earned our way into the finals where we were completely destroyed by the PE majors.
Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I certainly wish I had become more involved in volunteer activities on the campus and in the community where my experience could have made an impact. I have since been involved in medical missions in foreign countries and have relied on the training I received during my graduate years in the College of Pharmacy. However, as a new graduate student as well as a newlywed, I was a bit protective of my time. I suppose that action served me well as my wife and I recently celebrated our 37th anniversary.
Who has been a mentor to you?
My father was my first mentor, and he instilled a steady work ethic in me. In graduate school I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Walt Sowell, a medicinal chemist in the College of Pharmacy, as both a dissertation committee member, confidant, and advisor. Since both of us attended the same church, I was able to glean a vast amount of knowledge from him outside the classroom and he was always available to provide wise counsel. Dr. William (Bill) Slikker, Jr. hired me as a postdoctoral fellow at NCTR and is solely responsible for my career path in the FDA.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Obtaining any graduate degree is difficult, but a degree in the sciences takes perseverance, especially when your research project is not going well. Without my degree, my career path would certainly have been different. Having said that, I believe my greatest achievement is the relationship building over the years with colleagues whom I have worked with and collaborated with in the laboratory. Although it may seem like a big world, you soon realize it is rather small in your scientific field of interest. My research colleagues have become life-long friends and I value these relationships that first began around the commonality of attempting to answer scientific questions.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Be flexible. Science teaches us about adaptability, and you certainly have to be adaptable and flexible when doing research. The majority of the time the experiments do not work; adjustments and redirection are required. The same applies to life. You may have an ideal path in mind with how your life or career are going to go and then reality sideswipes you and redirection is required. If you are not flexible, the road to your “ideal” goal can be difficult.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
My wife and I love to travel and over the past few years we have had the opportunity to visit many countries. I also enjoy cycling. My best friend in graduate school, Dr. Alvin Terry (also an alumnus) who I shared an office and teaching assistant duties with introduced me to road biking and I still enjoy this activity. But as any cyclist would say, “I never get to ride enough.” I am a member of my local Lions Club and have had the opportunity to provide vision screenings around the state as well as in other countries. With my church I have also assisted with medical missions in Mexico, and I teach preschoolers, a labor of love that I began while in graduate school.
What skill would you love to master?
I would love to be fluent in another language. Like many students I took foreign language classes during college, but the old “use it or lose it” adage is certainly true. My wife and I enjoy international travel and to be able to effectively communicate with others in a foreign country in their native tongue would be enjoyable.
What are you currently reading, watching, or listening to?
Since I read so much for my work and also read the state newspaper cover-to-cover each day, I rarely read for leisure anymore unless I am sitting on the beach. I listen to all genres of music, but my escape is usually watching TV. My wife and I are both addicted to Dateline episodes and murder mysteries. We both consider ourselves expert CSI scientists and take pride in identifying the culprit(s) before they are revealed.
What is top of your bucket list?
There are places I still want to see all over the world, however, since I have seen the pyramids in Egypt and in Mexico but have not seen the pyramids in Peru (Machu Picchu), I would like to complete the trifecta.
What is your advice for current students / future pharmacy professionals?
Don’t burn your bridges. Some may think this is overused but I have found it so true during my career. The world is much smaller than you think, and it is amazing how many people you re-encounter in your life that may be responsible for making a decision that impacts you.
The second one is to be prepared for hardships, but also be prepared for how you are going to react to those hardships. The career you have chosen will at times be stressful. When these situations arise, be prepared, because it is how you react in these situations that will reveal your true character.
Finally, pharmacists are some of the most highly respected health care professionals. Unfortunately, we live in a society that thrives on scientific misinformation. I would strongly urge you to always follow the science and don’t allow yourself to be influenced by anything else when it comes to your health care decisions.