Opening Doors and Minds
Thursday, November 1, 2018
Research success led John Niblack to give to OSU, where his career journey began
By Jeff Joiner
Dr. John Niblack remembers wanting to be a scientist as early as elementary school, when he started doing simple experiments with a chemistry set. Of course, he didn’t know what it meant to be a scientist, but it sounded interesting. His first chance to work in a laboratory came one summer after an Oklahoma State University tour for high school students interested in science. He met biochemistry professor Dr. Robert Sirny and asked for a summer job. Sirny said sure, and gave him his first lab job — washing dishes.
“I washed a lot of glassware,” Niblack said. “What else could I do? I didn’t know anything.”
Niblack’s introduction to science may have begun at the bottom rung of the academic ladder, but his experiences working for Sirny and conducting real research as an OSU undergraduate changed his life.
Niblack earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from OSU in 1960 and a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Illinois-Champaign. In 1967, he began his career with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. as a research scientist before rising through the ranks to become the company’s executive vice chairman and president of the Global Research and Development division.
As Pfizer’s chief scientist, Niblack managed 12,000 researchers worldwide with annual research budgets of more than $5 billion to develop such blockbuster drugs as Viagra, Norvasc, Zithromax and Zoloft. Pfizer grew to become the largest drug company in the world. At Pfizer, Niblack met his wife, Heidi, who was also an employee. They married in 1977.
In 2002, Niblack retired from Pfizer. Two years later, he approached OSU about starting a scholarship for undergraduate student researchers. He wanted to give back to the university where his journey to become a scientist began.
Niblack funds scholarships for a dozen or more undergraduate students each year through the Niblack Research Scholars program, managed by the division of the Vice President for Research. The students take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to their own original experiments guided by faculty and graduate students. Over the past 15 years, 186 students have worked in science and engineering laboratories across campus in a variety of disciplines. For many of those students, immersion in science early in their university educations opened a world most had never considered before, just as it did for Niblack.
“What makes a young person want to go into science? What gets kids that interested?” Niblack asked. “I reflected on my own experience, and for a high school student and then a young college student to actually do real research in a real laboratory was the deciding thing for me.”
Dr. Kenneth Sewell, the OSU vice president for research, agrees that student research starts a chain reaction that leads many Niblack scholars to graduate and professional schools and jobs as doctors, veterinarians, professors, research scientists, engineers and even pharmaceutical company executives.
“Undergraduate research has already changed your life even if you don't realize it,” Sewell told a group of Niblack scholars. “You’re the lucky ones to be supported by a wonderful program like the Niblack Research Scholars, and you’re lucky that your future has already been transformed. I hope you embrace that.”
Niblack was born in Oklahoma City. His father sold oil drilling equipment and moved his family often to be close to oil fields in Oklahoma and Texas. Knowing his son was fascinated with chemistry, the elder Niblack encouraged his son to become a chemical engineer, which sounded interesting — until he learned more about the job.
“Chemical engineers build and operate plants to manufacture and transport chemicals, and so they have to work out a lot of plumbing. I wasn’t that interested in plumbing,” he said.
What he became interested in was biochemistry.
“I thought, ‘Wow! This is the coolest thing,’” Niblack said. “I had never given any thought to chemistry going on inside living matter.”
Niblack draws a direct line from his education at OSU to his success at Pfizer. Today, there are several research programs at OSU for undergraduate students, but Niblack had no such opportunity. He only found himself working in Sirny’s biochemistry lab through a desire to learn and the willingness of a professor to take him under his wing.
“Sirny began by teaching me how to operate his equipment and help collect data for studies he was conducting,” Niblack said. “He would give me gentle coaching and then say, ‘Go, see what you can do.’”
Sirny allowed Niblack to choose his own projects, and the results of the young student’s experimental forays were at first thrilling — and then embarrassing. In one of his early experiments, Niblack came across something exciting and, he thought, unknown.
“I thought I’d found a new pathway for the biosynthesis of an amino acid in this micro-organism,” Niblack said. “Sirny suggested I write it up and present it at a regional conference. I did, and it was absolutely ridiculous. Nobody believed it!
“Presenting made me think I was awesome, until I figured out my results were preposterous, but Sirny was never judgmental,” he said.
To honor his mentor, Niblack and his wife established the Robert J. Sirny Memorial Endowed Professorship in Agricultural Biochemistry in 1988. Dr. José Luis Soulages is the current Sirny professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Just as Sirny took a young Niblack under his wing, Soulages is mentoring Alice Chibnall, a young scientist who is his Niblack scholar. For Chibnall, from Frisco, Texas, working on genuine research allows her to apply classroom concepts to real-life situations.
Though Chibnall’s interest in marine life isn’t closely related to her Niblack research studying lipids in mosquitos, the experience is worthwhile.
“This opportunity gives me a very unique experience as an undergrad that will make the transition from my undergraduate program to graduate school slightly easier,” Chibnall said. She plans to study marine biology in graduate school.
“I love learning something new every day,” she said. “There’s always a new experiment to run and a new skill to learn.”
Another of Niblack’s goals is to make scientists human. Working directly with researchers shows Niblack scholars that scientists aren’t people in white lab coats smoking pipes and writing on blackboards in secret labs. They are real men and women who might even be a next-door neighbor. Niblack stresses the importance of fledgling scientists interacting with working researchers. It’s especially valuable for young women.
“At one time, very few women were drawn to the sciences,” Niblack said. “So, for today’s young women to see female scientists working and achieving things — it gives them exciting role models.”
Niblack has been pleased to see more women going into STEM fields over the years. That trend is reflected in the Niblack program, where women now outnumber their male counterparts.
Former Niblack scholar Dr. Savanah Sayler was drawn to study science at OSU from a small Oklahoma high school that offered few opportunities. Undergraduate research gave her confidence and a firm footing to pursue a career in medicine.
“Working in a research lab really helped push me in the direction where I am today. And it had a huge impact on the way that I now practice clinically,” said Sayler, an optometrist in Tulsa.
A scholar from 2006 to 2007, Sayler was invited to meet the Niblacks again a few years ago during one of their OSU visits. She was impressed with how interested John Niblack was in her career and her experience as a Niblack scholar.
“He was so down-to-earth,” she said. “You wouldn’t know he had such a big influence in the lives of so many people.”
Each year since starting his program, Niblack returns to Stillwater to meet the latest class of scholars and listen to research presentations from the preceding year’s students. He evaluates experimental design and the students’ abilities to explain their processes and outcomes.
It’s also a chance to share more than three decades of wisdom about the life and struggles of research scientists who often face persistent setbacks. The process can lead to weeks, months and even years of hard work without meaningful results. It’s a process that one former Niblack scholar described as heartbreaking.
“Science is a very frustrating pursuit because most of the time you fail,” Niblack said. “But that’s OK. Failure is a part of it. It teaches you to keep trying.”
At Pfizer, Niblack knew about setbacks in pharmaceutical research and development, which can lead to writing off millions of dollars. But often, perseverance pays off in a big way.
Under Niblack, Pfizer began developing a semisynthetic antibiotic to improve on the existing drug Erythomycin. But time and again, the experimental drugs appeared to be ineffective. Concentrations of the experimental antibiotics necessary to kill bacteria, as measured in the bloodstream, couldn’t be achieved in human subjects during early clinical trials.
With a huge potential profit on the line from the development of a new general antibiotic, the research continued for more than 20 years. Finally, Niblack told his scientists that it was time for a breakthrough, or else.
“I told the research team that I was going to pull the plug because they had spent too many years and too much money on this for nothing,” he said.
That caught their attention. Recent clinical studies of concentrations of certain antibiotics measured in the tissue rather than blood showed high enough levels to kill bacteria. Not confident but facing the end of their program, the Pfizer clinical researchers tested the hypothesis with their best experimental drug (later named Zithromax), and the results showed the drug indeed worked at high enough levels and remained in the body longer than expected to continue killing bacteria. Following clinical trials, Zithromax was approved by the FDA and moved to market. After two decades, and a last-minute reprieve, the antibiotic became one of the company’s most profitable products.
Each year, Zithromax is prescribed to millions of people, and especially to children. Commonly packaged as the Z-pack, it became the best-selling antibiotic in the United States with sales peaking at $2 billion in 2005.
When talking to his scholars, Niblack is not all doom and gloom. He points out that young scientists often have a naiveté about what they can accomplish and, instead of shying away, forge ahead eagerly and “starry-eyed,” in his words.
“That leads to all sorts of wonderful discoveries accomplished by people who didn't realize they probably couldn't succeed at something and they did anyway,” Niblack said. “That's what youth is all about.”