| Pundit Profile

A Q&A with Robert B. Raffa

What inspired you to do what you do?

I have been extremely lucky to be able to mostly do what I enjoy doing, and to have parents who allowed it, even when they didn’t understand what I was doing or why (and maybe I didn’t either). My mother gave us an interest in all things, particularly in the creative—mine and my brother’s turned to science, my sister’s to art. My father kept it real and obtainable. In my 2nd grade classroom, I couldn’t wait to go home. One day I sat staring at a blank outline of a landscape that we were instructed to color-in with crayons. But I had so many crayons to choose from, how could I possibly decide which one(s) to use? My teacher, a nun with more than 60 students in her class, passed by and asked why I was not coloring. I explained the dilemma. She said, “Well, it is fall. Why not color with fall colors.” I told her that I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. She said, “Just look out the window. Those colors you see are fall colors.” Whoa, hang on! I thought: there’s a THERE out there? That’s when I realized that school, and learning in general, could be pretty amazing!

The next inspiration, or maybe impetus is a better word, can be traced to 12 years of religion questions. What did heaven and hell mean? How could there be a trinity? What did eternity mean? These questions spawned my interest and study in thermodynamics (conservation of mass and energy?), saints, guardian angels, original sin (ah, maybe a residual of evolution from animals?). Heady stuff for an elementary-schooler to try to grapple with. And a great training ground for critical thinking, and willingness to challenge and change long-held beliefs. Finally, chemistry class in high school. Linus Pauling’s textbook turned chemistry into a movie. The atoms and molecules whizzing past as I daydreamed—not so far from 2nd grade after all.

Why did you focus on pain management?

Coincidence. I was studying for a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, thinking about the materials used for the design of artificial hips, feedback control of an artificial pancreas, and other such matters, when I took an elective course in pharmacology. It was taught by a physics/math major turned pharmacologist from Temple University School of Medicine, Dr. Ronald J. Tallarida. He taught pharmacology from the perspective of a chemist/engineer (mathematical receptor concepts). Bingo! My seemingly haphazard schooling all came together and made logical sense. School became more fun and for the first time I got a good grade. I followed my friend Dr. Frank Porreca and studied for a phdat Temple with well-known analgesics researchers and drug developers. I was then fortunate to head an analgesics drug discovery program at Johnson & Johnson.

Who were your mentors?

There is no doubt that my first mentor was my mother. She gave (not devoted, which is different) all of her time to teaching through example—by doing (for her interest and our learning) arts, crafts, reading, projects of all types, volunteering, and more. Being interested in doing became second nature to me. My high school teachers, Frank Porreca (in graduate school and my good friend and ‘life coach’) and Jeff Vaught (my supervisor and more at Johnson & Johnson). The prime position belongs to Dr. Tallarida, who introduced me to pharmacology, gave me my specialty within the field, taught me how to do research, taught me how to teach, and set the example on how to enjoy life while doing it. And, in particular, he started to get me out of my shyness-shell (I couldn’t even talk to check-out clerks). He is terribly missed. I think of him every day and he continues to guide my thoughts and actions.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Staying out of jail—at least so far.

Maybe being the first in my family to go to college, then graduate school. The work I did on tramadol, buprenorphine, and acetaminophen. Teaching so many terrific students in pharmacy school for 20 years. Raising two wonderful children.

What is your most marked characteristic?

I like to listen and learn; see both sides in everything, even when unpopular or unpleasant; but with a slavish adherence to critical thinking. I’m a good support person. I don’t need (or like) to lead. I love to follow and help.

If you weren’t a healthcare provider, what would you be?

I would love to be an artist, but I’m not good enough. Or a racecar driver—NASCAR or drag. I pursue these as hobbies.

What is or are your favorite languages?

Oh my. I have taken so many language courses—Latin, French, Russian, Spanish, Japanese—and I am terrible at all of them. I have taken introductory Japanese at least six times (so far) at multiple places, and I can’t even get to level 2!

Hmm, does mathematics count as a language?

If you had to choose one book, one film, and one piece of music to take into space for an undetermined amount of time, what would they be?

Book: That’s a difficult choice, since reading is a long-standing hobby of mine. I can narrow it down to David Copperfield, for the sheer joy of each sentence.

Movie: To Kill a Mockingbird, as a guide to living (even in space).

Music: Another impossible choice. The Rose (Bette Midler), for the inspiration, and I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston), for… well, it just always makes me cry happy tears.

What would you like your legacy to be?

That I always enjoyed what I did, didn’t hurt anyone, and helped a few people along the way. As corny as it sounds, I’d like to be remembered as a nice guy. And maybe that I tried to do assignments a little better than what was expected or anticipated. I suspect that for a few more years my professional 67

legacy will be the contributions that I made to tramadol, and the teaching of pharmacy students.

Plans for the future?

I plan on doing what I’m doing right now. Publishing, some teaching, staying active as the CSO and co-founder of two emerging start-up companies, participating in advisory board meetings for pharmaceutical companies, and hiking and enjoying my family. I have always followed the people who look happy in their personal and professional lives. I observe others, particularly with regard to whether they seem happy or not. Not just that day, but with the totality of their lives and their trajectories. And not just with a single aspect of their lives (professional vs personal, etc), but overall. If their choices are making them happy, well, it might just work for me too.

What is your motto?

“How old will you be if you don’t do it?”

When I was 28, I was telling my mother that I really loved pharmacology, but maybe it was a pipe dream. Maybe it was just too late. “Mom,” I said, “it takes four years to get a phd! Do you know how old I’ll be if I get a PhD four years from now?” She thought about it a moment, then said: “Well, son, how old will you be in four years if you DON’T get a PhD?”