Rock ‘n’ roll pharmacist: Brian Van Etten

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These are tumultuous times in academia – actually not different than many other fields – where economic pressures are making what used to be a “pure” profession yet just another business. But there are still times that I get these little gifts from the cosmos that remind me of why I took up the academic life – teaching, especially – and this week brought one.

My formative days as an assistant professor took play in Denver at the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy. Through a combination of luck, right-place-right-time, and a true interest in being a teacher as well as a researcher, I scored my first tenure-track faculty position at 28. The challenge here, of course, was that 28 was also the mean age of pharmacy students and many of them had more practical experience in the profession than I – me as a laboratory pharmacologist, with many of them on the front line of the pharmacy counter fighting insurance companies and irate patients more than holding forth on the subtleties of μ-opioid receptor partial agonism.

So, when being assigned responsibility for a five credit-hour pharmacology course for 130 students on day two of the job, the young professor had a choice: be a total hardass and hide behind one’s knowledge gaps with arrogance and dismissiveness or use the opportunity as a learning experience for all.

I took the approach that we are partners in learning. All of us, I said, are smarter than any one of us. My goal was to combine practical and theoretical knowledge so my students would graduate with pharmacology expertise that met or exceeded that of the physicians with whom they would interact. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t help with facility in dealing with health insurance and pharmacy benefits management).

What I found was that cultivating a learning environment of mutual respect was both well-received and, dare I say, fun. Yes, yes, there are always about 10% of students who aren’t happy with anything you do but the other 90% have been the joy of my professional existence. In my nine years at Colorado, I taught about 1,000 students and I cannot vacation anywhere in the state without running into one or two of them. And what is so fulfilling is to hear them say today that they can still remember some of our explanations and stories about practical aspects of pharmacology.

Now, we have Facebook – a medium which brings me great ambivalence. Yes, we can now catch up with many long-lost friends but at the cost of putting money in the pockets of a corporation that uses our personal data for profit. Perhaps that’s the price we pay for a free service.

This month’s delight on Facebook was to hear from one of my favorite students of my last few years at Colorado, Brian Van Etten.

Brian. Van. Etten.

What a great name. It has gravity, mystique, and sounds great when spoken from a public address system. In my commencement speech to his graduating class I said that he had the best rock ‘n’ roll name of any pharmacist I knew. True to the cadence of his name, Brian was and is also a musician.

Brian Van Etten, Zakk, and yours truly. December 2000, Denver, CO. Source: Me, but I'm deducing that Kristi took the picture.

There are a few students each year who a very special – those who you resonate with on a level that transcends other areas of typical differences – religion, politics – and who simply enrich one’s life. I was impressed with Brian from day one because of his dedication to his work, smokin’ intelligence, and as a handful of students with a spouse and child who still had that wild-eyed zest for life and the arts that could never be suppressed by corporate pharmacy.

So, I wasn’t surprised to hear from Brian that he and his wife, Kristi, had left the Colorado Front Range for the rural end of Springfield, Missouri, on a big ol’ hunk of land in the Ozarks. Kristi, a horsewoman from Kansas, has the freedom and space to have as many horses as she’d like. That’s the great thing about pharmacy – unlike with professorin’, you don’t have to live near a major university to be employed.

Also a sportsman in the tradition of folks like my late father, Brian proudly shows on FB his 10-year-old daughter with her first wild turkey kill. And while I never took up hunting like my Dad, I can certainly see how Brian and Kristi are cultivating in their daughter a degree of self-reliance and self-confidence through rural life.

Brian also reports that his daughter has an incredible ear for music and both son and daughter are taking guitar and piano lessons – this is no surprise given how the old man has developed his own skills since I last saw him. But philosophically, what resonated with me from Brian’s YouTube post embedded below is this truism:

I’m teachin my kidz to play …. I think music is the ultimate gift …..even if you are poor…with music…you are RICH!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dig, bro.

So, for this edition of Solitary Sunday, I bring you a 1997 graduate of the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy, Brian Van Etten, playing lead to Born Under A Bad Sign. This legendary blues tune by Booker T. Jones and William Bell was first recorded by Albert King in 1967 but has been covered extensively by folks from Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Cream and, yes, Homer Simpson.

Now, by Brian. Van. Etten.

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