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Biology Professor Epitomizes the Teacher-Scholar

Jill Adler-Moore

Collaborating between academia and industry is really important because it allows students to see how science is applied. It fits in so well with Cal Poly Pomona’s learn-by-doing approach. The more we can nurture these relationships, the better. It can be a win-win situation.

Whether developing an innovative drug that has helped hundreds of thousands or mentoring individual students at Cal Poly Pomona, improving lives is what excites Professor Jill Adler-Moore.

The biology professor invented AmBisome, a breakthrough antifungal drug that is perhaps the most significant discovery and academic achievement in university history.

During her 39-year tenure, she has garnered about $15 million in grants and contracts for research, as well as significant funding to support underrepresented students in science.

And she was instrumental in establishing the biotechnology major — the first in the Cal State University system — which provides a foundation in biology and knowledge of the marketplace and the industry.

On a personal level, Adler-Moore is intensely committed to her students and devotes an hour a week to advise each of her eight to 10 undergraduate and graduate research assistants.

Adler-Moore, who does not shy away from a challenge, is known for her persistence, enthusiasm and drive. Those qualities were evident early in her career when few women were involved in scientific research.

“I had to be really good in order to get where I needed to go and to reach far,” AdlerMoore says. “I couldn’t think, ‘I can’t do it because there are so few women in science.’”

Her persistence — plus a stroke of inspiration — paid off in the discovery of AmBisome, which treats fungal infections in patients with compromised immune systems, such as those with cancer, AIDS or severe burn injuries. Now used in 50 countries, AmBisome has helped hundreds of thousands of people and generated about $1 billion in sales since 1989.

It’s a rare feat for any scientist, especially in the historically teaching-centric CSU system, to introduce a new drug in the marketplace, says Frank Ewers, biology department chair and associate vice president for research.

“It takes a really excellent idea. Then you have to convince other people that it’s a good idea. Then you have to develop mounting evidence that it really will work,” Ewers says. “There are many, many clinical trials that are necessary, many years until it can become a product and sold in the marketplace to help cure people. It requires a lot of inspiration and perspiration.”

Professor Jill Adler-Moore works in the lab with a student.

Adler-Moore says the challenge of solving a puzzle, as well as the hope of saving lives, motivated her to persevere in her years-long project, which she lovingly calls her “scientific baby.”

During a sabbatical in 1983, she began experimenting with ways to safely deliver the powerful yet toxic fungi-fighting drug, and discovered that liposomes (microscopic fatty capsules) were up to the task. After about 300 formulations and numerous clinical trials, AmBisome was approved in Sweden in 1989 and in the United States in 1997.

One of the benefits of research, Adler-Moore says, is collaboration, which is another reason she feels at home at Cal Poly Pomona. Working with student research assistants is an opportunity to mentor a new generation of scientists and introduce them to the real-world applications of their work.

“When students start out with me doing research, they really don’t know what they’re doing. It’s very different from coursework and structured lab work,” Adler-Moore says. “They have to learn time management and to think critically, using all the information they learned in their coursework.

“I get to see how they change, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It can take six months to a year for them to become confident researchers. With my graduate students, it takes about three years before they can complete a research project.”

It takes graduate students longer because they have to master sophisticated procedures, obtaining research data and then editing and repeating experiments to support their findings, she says.

Good grades don’t necessarily reflect students’ ability to be successful researchers, she adds. It’s often an intangible quality — the way they approach experiments or the type of questions they ask. First-generation college students often have the most to learn about being a researcher, but they find a champion and a role model in Adler-Moore.

At the beginning of her career at Cal Poly Pomona, her first job after her postdoctoral fellowship, Adler-Moore set out to be a role model — for other women. At the time, very few women worked in science, and the ones who did were usually saddled with stereotypes.

“I wanted to be a woman role model on every level, not just a nerdy scientist — somebody [other women] could see and could identify with: Family-oriented, concerned about fashion to some degree, and with lots of interests besides science. I wanted to be a wife and have a family. Being a scientist doesn’t mean you have to fit into a stereotype.”

Adler-Moore considered herself more of a feminist early in her career because it was necessary to overcome discrimination and make inroads in the profession. At Cal Poly Pomona, she was one of four female faculty members in the 30-person department. That’s why she identifies with today’s first-generation and underrepresented students who have challenges of their own.

“I feel like I can be a really good mentor for the students because I know what it’s like for people to say, ‘Well, you can’t do that. That’s not possible.’ I think it is possible,” she says. “I just slowly work with the students, and over time they realize what they can accomplish. Each student has their own issues, and when you work with them to emphasize their strengths, they’ll rise to the occasion.”

On a larger scale, Adler-Moore promotes student development and research through her oversight of the RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) program, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, and as a member of the Strategic Planning Council of CSUPERB, a CSU initiative to advance biotechnology education and research. Her research experience, connections in industry and rapport with students cannot be discounted, says biological sciences Professor Pam Sperry, who serves as the RISE undergraduate coordinator.

“I think her impact is huge,” Sperry says. “If she weren’t as productive research wise, if she didn’t have these connections with industry, if her research didn’t have such a big impact … without her contributions in research, we wouldn’t be able to support these programs. We have many, many great researchers, but certainly she stands out.”

Another of Adler-Moore’s achievements was the creation of the biotechnology major in 1990, the first in the CSU system. Her experience in developing AmBisome was evidence to her that the biomedical industry needed graduates who could apply their knowledge in practical ways in the medical and technology fields.

“You can have an idea as a scientist, but if you don’t have the cooperation of the engineers, the marketing people, the regulatory people … no matter how good your idea is, it will never be available to the general public,” Adler-Moore says. “I realized that our students were just strictly scientists, but they needed to understand all these other things. Especially in California, where biotechnology is such a burgeoning industry, we need to provide students with the kind of background that will be valuable for the biotechnology industry.”

The timing was right, Sperry says. “We were moving in that direction, but we weren’t there yet. Jill’s vision and persistence to get it done at that time is a big credit to her leadership and drive.”

In 2009, Cal Poly Pomona, in partnership with two other CSU campuses, launched a professional science master’s degree program in biotechnology studies that emphasizes both science and business.

“Collaborating between academia and industry is really important because it allows students to see how science is applied. It fits in so well with Cal Poly Pomona’s learn-by-doing approach,” Adler-Moore says. “The more we can nurture these relationships, the better. It can be a win-win situation.”

Last spring, she received the Provost’s Award for Scholarship and Creative Activity, one of the university’s highest faculty awards. Adler-Moore, who describes herself as a teacher-scholar, says research is part of her nature and also vital for faculty growth.

“Being a teacher-scholar means that I can help others to become researchers of the future and to do research that will help the rest of the world,” she says. “That work in itself is extremely rewarding, and I wouldn’t have done it for all these years if it hadn’t been so much fun and a lot of hard work. You really can see the fruits of what we’ve invested.”

Published on December 2, 2014

Impact Map

Explore Impact Map

The Impact Map shows how Cal Poly Pomona alumni are making a difference in Southern California and around the country. Explore the map or share your own impact.

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