No normal day: UOP neuroscientist spends days training, researching, discovering

Robert Halliwell, PhD, is an academic neuroscientist at the University of the Pacific. While not a teacher by definition, a large portion of his work involves training students in pharmacy, dentistry and neuroscience at both UOP and the School of Dentistry in San Francisco.

He considers teaching to be one of the most satisfying aspects of his varied career in neuroscience and clinical pharmacology.

“There are several really nice parts of my job,” Halliwell said. “When my students do well in courses, I believe this reflects well on my efforts and gives me confidence that they will make excellent pharmacists that are able to provide the best care for their patients.”
Amanda Spickenreuther is a student pharmacist at the Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at UOP. She took Halliwell’s neuropsychiatric pharmacy course in Fall 2017.

Spickenreuther described Halliwell’s teaching style as approachable.

“He doesn’t make us feel dumb in the learning process,” she said. “I definitely can tell that his priority is his students, and he genuinely cares about us becoming competent pharmacists.”

Spickenreuther said Halliwell’s emphasis on treating all patients as individuals is her ultimate takeaway from his class. “Because every patient case is different,” she said.
The topics Halliwell lectures on mirrors the research he conducts in the lab.

As an academic neuroscientist, he manages experiments with a team of research assistants and students, writes papers and fills out grant applications to obtain lab funding, and presents works at medical meetings in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychiatric medicine.

“My ‘normal’ day is incredibly varied,” he said.

Halliwell’s expertise lies in treating disorders such as epilepsy, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and headaches. Part of that is helping to develop the medications used to treat these complex neurological and psychiatric conditions.

“My lab works on making human nerve cells from stem cells for drug discovery and drug safety testing,” Halliwell said.

Essentially, his lab creates human nerve cells to test new drugs for adverse reactions. They are also able to test for efficacy.

Before the use of human stem cells in neuroscience and pharmacology research, animal cells were used, which, while similar in many ways to human cells, often led to wasted time as drugs do not interact identically in animals as they do with humans due to inter-species differences.

As Halliwell explained it, there are many times when a drug works well on animals and then is thrown out in the clinical testing phase because it doesn’t garner the same results on humans.

“It’s the future of developing medicines,” Halliwell said about stem cells, adding that the nerve cells created for the brain, spine and other body parts can also be used to replace damaged cells.

Over the years, his works have been published in several major medical journals including “Nature Medicine,” and he has received many awards for his discoveries in the lab, as well as his teachings, including, most recently, the 2012 University Faculty Research Lecturer from UOP and, in 1997, a Fulbright Scholarship.

“When our research is published in a major scientific journal, this is incredibly satisfying,” Halliwell expressed. “When we are awarded funds for a new project, this feels like a great pat on the back, and allows us to begin to answer new questions through our scientific research.”

Research wasn’t always in his career plans. During medical school, Halliwell intended on practicing medicine. He was, however, inspired by advisors to pursue a research-based career in medicine. Given opportunities to pursue research projects early on set him on this trajectory.

“I really enjoyed the research,” Halliwell said. “It was much more challenging for me and in many ways more exciting.”

When Halliwell isn’t working, he gets involved in community projects where his expertise can best be utilized. He is a member of the medical ethics committee at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center, and he takes students from UOP to the Peer Recovery Services Wellness Center in Stockton, a drop-in center for people with mental health challenges — the exact people he aims to help through his research and lectures.