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Scientist thrives on challenge and change

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2011 - Phil Needleman relishes his new role as interim president and chief executive officer of the St. Louis Science Center.

"What's good about an interim president is that it means change," he said. "It is the death of 'the way we've always done it.' "

Needleman just finished another stint as interim head of an institution -- nearly two years at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center -- so he knows whereof he speaks.

Needleman has lost none of his gusto for science since his arrival in St. Louis in 1964 as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology at Washington University Medical School. His enthusiasm -- conveyed with a wide smile and his St. Louis-tempered Brooklyn accent -- has shaped the environment in all of his workplaces.

He spent 25 years at Washington University, leaving his position as professor and head of the department of pharmacology to become chief scientist at Monsanto.

Needleman discovered an enzyme called COX-2 that the body makes only in certain inflammatory conditions. He hypothesized that blocking this enzyme would treat the inflammation without the gastric side effects that anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen can cause. He proved his hypothesis in the university laboratory, but developing and testing a drug need industrial facilities and expertise. The drug was Celebrex, used to treat arthritis and colon cancer.

The move to industry was prompted by what he felt was a unique opportunity to follow his research on COX-2 all the way from basic science through development and eventual marketing of a drug.

Bringing Scientists Together

When describing his career, Needleman always brings up his pride in the workplace culture that he has fostered. As chair of pharmacology at Washington University, he instituted a system of three lunchtime seminars a week. In these meetings, faculty members, post-docs and graduate students had to present not only their own work but report on interesting work outside their narrow fields.

He has pushed communication and exploration wherever he has been. At the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, he instituted a weekly brown bag lunch with presentations by one investigator a week -- a way of team building and networking and a forum for direct communication.

"He moved us all from our comfort zones while promoting interactions, and I loved working with him every one of those days he was in charge," said Sam Fiorello, chief operating officer of the Danforth Center.

Needleman hit the ground running at the Science Center. One of his first actions as interim chief was to initiate an in-depth analysis of the Science Center's current strengths and future challenges. He served on the board of commissioners from 2005 until his appointment as interim CEO; he previously served on its board of trustees. He was the first scientist to be appointed a commissioner.

"I wasn't born with the fearful gene," he said. "I can do anything I want in my life now. It's got to be interesting, I've got to learn something, and it's got to be damn important.

"I love science. And (President Barack) Obama is right; this is a Sputnik moment. Science is an urgent deficiency in this country and in our schools. We don't have a literate public that can deal with either the technology of our time or the complexity of the questions that face us. So how do you really make a difference in science literacy?"

The answer from the mission analysis listed three focus areas

  • Building a 21st-century museum
  • Making the Science Center into a center for science
  • Creating a science education program built around the Youth Exploring Science program

Building A 21st-century Museum

A modern science museum will replace static placards of printed words with multimedia, interactive exhibits as much as possible, says Needleman. Exhibits need to be dynamic and searchable in this day of the internet.

He gives the example of an exhibit from the recent Darwin show. In an exhibit case, one of Darwin's notebooks was opened to a small drawing. This first drawing of an evolutionary tree was one of the two most important life science drawings in 200 years, according to Needleman. (The other was the double helix.) But people just passed it by.

In a 21st-century museum, such an important exhibit would include interactive screens, calling attention to the drawing and allowing the visitor to learn more in the moment.

Needleman commissioned a detailed assessment of every computer in the center, from office PCs to the computers at the ticket desk. He plans to upgrade them all. He wants to put in such innovations as an interactive kiosk, where visitors can map out an itinerary that fits both their personal interests and the amount of time they want to spend.

He has always embraced technology. In the late 1960s, he used funds from one of his first grants to purchase a typewriter-sized calculator for his laboratory. When the news of this amazing machine spread around the pharmacology department, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who had been making their calculations with slide rules and paper and pencil, stood in line to use this time saver.

A Center For Science And Science Education

The St. Louis Science Center should be the place where people go for answers when news breaks. The public should be able to find information from museum sources on tsunamis and tectonic plates within an hour of the disaster.

Eventually, the center will need a television station with two-way capabilities. Live broadcasts could be held from exhibits. Al Wiman, veteran television science reporter now on the Science Center staff, already does some of this type of outreach.

The Youth Exploring Science program, begun in 1997, involves inner-city students in an intensive four-year program to learn science and related skills. The students, 300 in all, are recruited by community organizations and attend regular public schools. But on Saturdays during the school year and weekdays in the summer, they are involved in learning science and in teaching it. They receive a stipend and breakfast and lunch in the summer.

When "Body Worlds and the Brain" comes to the Science Center at the end of this week, a group of 20 YES students will spend their afternoons taking classes on how the brain works from Washington University neuroscientists and volunteer premed students. In the morning they will be teaching workshops on the brain to the public.

Last year, 34 of the 35 students who completed the program went on to higher education.

Needleman and his wife, Sima, got interested in the program in its early years. "These kids are our heroes. They are stepping out," Needleman said.

He considers YES a transferable program for helping the educationally underserved learn science and technology. He is quite pleased that the U.S. Navy is interested in the program. Many recruits come from a population with poor science education. The Navy recently gave a $2.1 million, three-year grant to the Science Center to double the size of the YES program.

The Phil Needleman Saga

Education wasn't a priority for Needleman until he was 17.

"I never took home a book in high school. I gambled, played football and was basically interested in the good life."

Then he met 16-year-old Sima, the top student in an accelerated high school.

Everything changed. He had to impress her. He decided to go to college, took home a book, took a test and got an A. He bought a tie and made a "command decision" not to gamble, even though he usually won because he could memorize a deck of cards.

He was able to get into the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, he says, because his brother had gone there. The college automatically admitted siblings -- if a parent paid $100. In his junior year, a professor inspired him to go to graduate school, a pivotal decision.

Sima was the daughter of a pharmacist and once declared she would never marry one. But she was willing to marry a pharmacologist. (A pharmacist prepares and dispenses drugs. A pharmacologist is a scientist specializing in the study of how drugs work.) The Needlemans have been married for 52 years.

Their daughter Nina lives in St. Louis and works in the financial industry. She devotes much of her time to making a difference in other people's lives through causes ranging from women's health to the United Way. Son Larry is a psychologist in Ohio and has two sons.

Team Needleman

On May 11, the Needlemans received the prestigious "Search" award from Washington University's Eliot Society. It was the first time the award has been given to a couple. They were recognized for contributions both had made to the university.

Sima, who has a master's degree in social work from Washington University, has served in many leadership roles as an alumna of that school, including leading a dialogue group on race relations at the Brown School from 2000-2008. Professionally, she specialized in helping women with obstetrical and infertility problems at Jewish Hospital (now Barnes-Jewish Hospital), where she worked with the team that pioneered in-vitro fertilization. She has also had a private practice.

Phil is a member of the Washington University board of trustees and the medical school National Council, the National Academy of Science and the Institute of Medicine, and a long list of other academic and scientific governing bodies. He chairs the University Research and Development National Council and is special advisor to the president of Ben Gurion University in Israel. He has received many prestigious awards.

"Sima and I have had an interesting life. Washington University was a place where anything was possible," he reminisced. "It's a great continuum, but I've always followed a few good precepts: Follow the science and surround yourself with smart people."

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching technical writing at WU's engineering school.

Jo Seltzer

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