In an ironic twist, Karen Bush Watts ’65 decided not to take the one Monmouth College science class that best matched her future career path – microbiology.
But during a recent presentation at her alma mater titled “The Odyssey of a Liberal Arts Graduate,” the Distinguished Alumni Visitor discussed many other Monmouth classes that influenced her life, even some in physical education.
“We were required to take two years of physical education, which I wasn’t that pleased about as a science major,” she said. “One of the classes was called ‘Basic Movements,’ and one of the things we learned was how to get in and out of car in high heels. But we also learned how to relax and how to overcome stress. Some of the principles I learned in that class really did affect how I’ve lived my life.”
Another pesky requirement that eventually paid big dividends for Watts was speech.
“I’m so happy I had that class,” she said, reporting that she’s given public talks on five continents. She also appreciated Monmouth’s writing and literature requirement, as she’s a member of three book clubs, has authored more than 400 manuscripts, book chapters and abstracts, and edited a scientific journal for 10 years.
“I thoroughly enjoyed a philosophy course I took with Sam Thompson to fulfill a humanities requirement,” she recalled. “I found it very stimulating, I remember Professor Thompson saying he liked chemistry students in his class because they thought analytically.”
She still found the time to take plenty of science courses – so many, in fact, that her father discouraged her from taking the aforementioned microbiology class, insisting that she continue to branch out. It wasn’t the first time she took his advice, as her very presence on Monmouth’s campus was influenced by a couple of his experiences.
“It was just ingrained in us that we would go to college,” Watts said. “My father always said that I could get a college education or he would give me $10 and a ladder.” The latter option, she explained, would help her escape from her bedroom and elope.
When it came to picking the right college, her father’s experience sitting next to former President Gibson on a campus visit carried a lot of weight, and a Presbyterian scholarship she received ultimately tilted the scales in favor of Monmouth.
“I was interested in many things,” Watts said, recalling the choices that were in front of her as a freshman. “I was a typical liberal arts student in that regard. But I was most interested in music and science.”
Watts embarked on a chemistry major, which she said “was one of the hardest majors on campus,” while also playing the organ.
In keeping with some of the sexist ideals that were still prevalent in the early 1960s, Watts said, “My adviser told me not to bother taking a certain upper level class, because I was just going to get married and have kids. But the next year, Dr. Meyer became my adviser, and he told me to go to grad school … One of my major motivations was the plaque in the science building with Dr. Haldeman’s quote: ‘The bachelor’s degree is not enough.’”
Watts earned her doctorate in biochemistry from Indiana University. She considered turning that higher education into a career as a college professor, but her husband, Dan, was working in the pharmaceutical area.
“It made sense for me to stay in that area, and I did, for 35 years,” she said. “I was the head of drug discovery teams looking for new antibiotics to counteract antibiotic resistance. I was involved with bringing billion-dollar drugs to market that were used widely and effectively.”
Following postdoctoral work at the University of California-Santa Barbara and the University of North Carolina, she joined the Squibb Institute for Medical Research in New Jersey, where she began studying beta-lactamases, the enzymes in pathogenic bacteria that are the major cause for resistance to penicillin and other beta-lactam antibiotics.
During her career in the pharmaceutical industry (Squibb, 1973-1991; Lederle/Wyeth 1991-1996; Johnson & Johnson, 1997-2009), Bush was a member of teams that identified and/or developed the antibiotics Azactam, Zosyn, Levaquin, Doribax and the anti-MRSA cephalosporin, Zeftera. As the head of the Antimicrobial Drug Discovery Research team at J&J, her work involved the identification of novel inhibitors of bacterial enzyme targets and the discovery of new ketolides and novel topoisomerase inhibitors with antibacterial activity against resistant gram-positive pathogens. During her research career, she contributed to the development of eight investigational drugs that entered human clinical trials.
Watts did much of her work during the “glory days” of that field, which is now undergoing tough times.
“In 1980, there were 38 companies involved in antibiotic research, then 18 in 1992 and, today, only five,” she explained. “In their place are bio-techs, which are stepping in and doing a lot of the discovery work. There are real problems in the pharmaceutical industry.”
Part of that, she explained, is due to “red tape,” and the science is getting harder, too.
“The regulatory hurdles have been higher in the last few years. There are more clinical trials, more toxicology, and the FDA has gotten more rigorous. We’re definitely behind. The bugs are smarter than we are. It’s common for drugs to take 12-13 years to get from discovery to market, and many drugs are taking 15-16 years. During the time it takes to develop a drug, the resistance is developing, too. Global travel is an issue, too. Where an outbreak starts and where it ends up might be three continents apart.”
Today, Watts is an adjunct professor at Indiana University.
“I’m retired from drug discovery programs, but not from science,” she said.
In her closing remarks, Watts listed more than a dozen Monmouth faculty and staff who played a major role in her development and said, “There’s a lot of people out there, like me, who can say these people really helped shape our lives.”
She concluded, “This has been a real joy to be back, and the campus looks marvelous. I’ve seen a lot of college campuses that have not worn well. With all the buildings that were named for people from my era, like Cleland, Liedman and Haldeman-Thiessen, it’s made me feel that this is a place I’m still connected to.”