Scientific mind


When he worked at Monsanto, there was a coffee mug on Phil Needleman’s desk inscribed with words Dragnet’s Joe Friday might have spoken if he’d been a researcher instead of a cop. “In God we trust. All else bring data.”

“I always wanted to see data, not words,” said Needleman, an affable 70-year-old with a Brooklyn accent noticeably undiluted by 45 years west of the Mississippi. “I didn’t like when they called me a micromanager. I preferred nanomanger. It’s hands on, deep-look stuff. The excitement is poring over the data with a good scientist and seeing what it means and where you go to from there.”

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Where Needleman went is perhaps not where he expected to be as recently as just a few months ago. In October, he became interim president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center after the departure of Dr. Roger Beachy, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to become the first director of the newly created National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Needleman also plays a key role on the search committee looking for Beachy’s permanent replacement.

In the meantime, however, he’s having fun and it shows.

“He is still excited by science,” said Tom Smith, a member and principal investigator at the center. “The guy loves it. He loves data. He loves experiments. I don’t think it matters to him what field it is as long as it’s really cool science.”

“It’s a very complex model running an institution like this,” said Sam Fiorello, the center’s CEO who has known Needleman since their time together at Monsanto. “I think that a lesser person would probably have a hard time trying to figure it out. He very quickly drills down to the core issues and understands it.”

“He is a great scientist as well as a great citizen of this community,” said William “Bill” Danforth, the center’s board chair who also worked with Needleman when the former was chancellor of Washington University. “He’s a leader who has the ability to inspire others and explain to not just scientists but non-scientists what he is about and what he is doing. He has marvelous scientific judgment.”

But for Needleman summing himself up is simple.

“I do things for three reasons,” he said. “It’s got to be interesting, I’ve got to learn something and it’s got to be very important.”

Road to achievement

None of those three have been in short supply for Needleman, a first-generation American born in New York to a Hungarian father and a Belarusian mother who came to the U.S. to escape pogroms in her native land. By 1964, he had earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in pharmacology, achievements that led to his becoming a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, a position he took on despite, he laughingly remembers, having “never lived west of New Jersey.”

Needleman fell in love with the Washington U campus, part of the reason he’d spend the next quarter century there, eventually rising to a department chairmanship before moving on to become Chief Scientist at Monsanto. Eventually, he’d head research and development at Searle Pharmaceutical before finally being named Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Scientist of the Pharmacia Corporation.

His most notable achievement was his work with COX-2, an enzyme related to joint inflammation. That research led to the billion-dollar drug Celebrex, which fights both arthritis and colon cancer but lacks some of the drawbacks of treatment regimens involving aspirin, ibuprofen and similar anti-inflammatories.

“Those were all out there but they had a common side effect because in many people they also cause bleeding and ulcers,” he said. “COX-2 was a bit of magic bullet. You could attack the inflammation but not cause the stomach problems.”

By 2003, drug conglomerate Pfizer bought out Pharmacia. Rather than leave St. Louis, Needleman called it quits on a long career. Well, sort of.

“I became a failed retiree,” he joked.

That failure was a boon for others. He presently serves on boards ranging from the St. Louis Science Center to the Washington University Board of Trustees, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences Division of Earth and Life Sciences Committee, and serves as a research advisor to the president of Ben-Gurion University in Israel where he helped create the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev. He’s also endowed chairs both here and in the Jewish State.

Making sense of how things work

In his spare time, he likes to advise those who are looking to build science from the ground floor up, especially if it’s being built in a spot near and dear to his heart.

“If anybody wants to do a start up company in St. Louis or in Israel I’ll help for a cup of coffee,” he said.

For Needleman it’s worth the coffee because the ground floor has the best view. That’s where the action and the next wonder drug or scientific breakthrough is waiting.

“I’ve seen the whole thing from the beginning of the idea to drugs that are used in 20 million patients a year,” he said. “For me, the joy of the hunt of science is really the engine. How do things work? What are the mysteries of biology?”

He’s getting plenty of that joy in his present job. The Danforth Center is working on research to do everything from redirecting plant chemistry toward biofuel production to increasing vitamins in African crops to provide more sustainable food sources.

“It’s a marriage of biology, chemistry, and molecular biology in order to manipulate the system for some optimal human outcome: nutrition, alternative products, drugs,” he said. “It’s a very pleasing life. You spend your time turning over rocks. It’s kind of the ultimate sandbox.”

And as sandboxes go, it’s a financially stable one. Needleman said that the center is unique since it has a strong endowment to facilitate high-level research. That’s unusual since he said that research on medical disorders normally sees 15 times as much funding as that geared to plant diseases.

“Plant science is relatively poorly funded so you don’t see universities with aggregates of this many people in a plant sciences department,” he said. “That’s very rare and this is completely scientifically driven. It’s not driven by industry.”

By next summer, Needleman, a father of two and grandfather of two, expects to be back where he started 2009, as a member of the center’s board. That will suit him fine. He just marked his 50th anniversary with wife Sima, whom he calls his “anchor.” They met as teenagers on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. She would go on to earn her MSW from Washington University and even helped with the team that pioneered in vitro fertilization at what was then-Jewish Hospital.

He credits her for keeping him rooted and focused. Monsanto wanted to relocate him to Chicago. Pharmacia wanted him in New Jersey. Pfizer wanted him to move, too. But his wife, his adopted hometown and science are among Needleman’s greatest loves. Fortunately for him they are all in one spot.

“My rule of thumb is that I’m not going to be away from Sima or St. Louis more than three days and two nights,” he said.