May 19, 2021
Joseph Porter, a ‘dedicated scientist’ and psychology professor, retires after 46 years
He built his first lab at VCU with his own hands and taught thousands of students at the university. And his research broke ground in the understanding of antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs.
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When Joseph Porter, Ph.D., arrived at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1975, the psychology professor shared an office with two other faculty members in the old Life Sciences building, located at the site of what is now Shafer Court Dining Center. A behavioral pharmacologist, Porter didn’t have a lab, so he set out to build one “literally with a borrowed hammer and saw.”
“It was like pioneer days,” Porter said.
Porter and another psychology professor, Robert Hamm, Ph.D., would visit state surplus sales and purchase old equipment, such as telephone equipment that had mechanical relays, they could re-purpose for experiments.
“I used to call it procurement 101. If it wasn't nailed down, we knew we would find it somewhere,” Porter said. “We'd build some of our own equipment from scraps. It was fun. We had to learn basic electrical skills, how to do a good solder joint. That's something I actually used to teach my students back in the 70s and 80s.”
Porter, also an affiliate professor of pharmacology and toxicology and an affiliate professor of biology, joined VCU’s faculty from the University of Georgia. At the time, there was a growing realization of the role of neurochemicals in the brain. Porter decided to retool himself and focus on behavioral pharmacology.
“It was sort of a deficit area for me, knowledge-wise,” Porter said. “So I actually went downtown to VCU’s great Pharmacology and Toxicology Department on the MCV Campus and started literally sitting in on graduate courses and learning. I even took a test one time — that was a humbling experience.”
Pioneering drug research
As a behavioral pharmacologist, Porter studies the role of the brain and how it controls and regulates behavior, as well as how drugs produce changes in behavior and the mechanisms that underlie those changes.
In the early 80s, he and a graduate student named George Kemp began researching the drug Clozapine, an atypical antipsychotic drug.
“My focus switched to antipsychotic drugs used for the treatment of schizophrenia,” Porter said. “This drug had not been approved for use in humans at that point in time. So we had some early behavioral studies in it, and the drug had some serious side effect issues, which had been preventing its approval, but in the late 80s a really good clinical trial was done showing that Clozapine was more effective in treatment-resistant schizophrenia.”
The drug was approved in 1989 for use in treatment-resistant patients, and continues to be used for people with schizophrenia who have not responded to other antipsychotic drugs. And the pharmacology research on Clozapine conducted by scientists like Porter went on to lead to the development of at least a dozen similar drugs.
Even though I'm retiring, I still got a lot of work to do. I told my wife, I'll finally have time to write up all this data I've been collecting for the last 45 years.
About 12 years ago, Porter’s research focus shifted again with the arrival at VCU of a doctoral student, Todd Hillhouse, Ph.D., now a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. With Hillhouse, Porter began studying the drug ketamine, which is widely known for its use in veterinary medicine but also commonly used in human surgery and pain management. In 2000, a small study found that ketamine also could produce a rapid and sustained reduction of depressive symptoms in depressed patients.
“That's sort of the Holy Grail in the field. Can you get a rapid acting drug?” Porter said. “Because the first couple generations of drugs — tricyclic antidepressants, MAO inhibitors and then the newer SSRIs, which everybody's more familiar with — all have a delayed onset of effect, anywhere from two to eight weeks. That's a long time if you're suffering from severe depression, even worse if you have thoughts of suicide.”
Porter and Hillhouse published a number of studies on ketamine, exploring its behavioral effects and pharmacology. Porter has continued to focus on ketamine, and is in the process of writing up a study with another former graduate student, Remington Rice, exploring the possible role of the ketamine hydroxynorketamine (HNK) metabolite in how ketamine produces antidepressant effects.
“Even though I'm retiring, I still got a lot of work to do,” Porter said. “I told my wife, I'll finally have time to write up all this data I've been collecting for the last 45 years. I have a lot of old data, so to speak — a lot of it. It's very good data, but the more recent stuff of course, we'll focus on at first because it is a little more timely. I think this field will continue to evolve for the next 10 years. Quite a bit.”
‘Do the math’
Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology, said Porter has made invaluable contributions to VCU, students and the field of behavioral pharmacology.
“Over the past 46 years, he has been a dedicated scientist in the field with over 100 peer reviewed papers, including his first in 1972,” Southam-Gerow said. “He is also a tireless instructor, teaching tens of thousands of VCU students over his career in classes like statistics and bio bases. He also chaired or co-chaired two dozen Ph.Ds. He served as associate chair for the department in the mid-1980s. He directed the biopsychology concentration for almost 10 years. Also noteworthy [is] that he has served for more than a decade as the vice chair for [VCU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee]. We will greatly miss Joe and thank him for his essential contributions to the work we do at VCU.”
Porter has served on the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which reviews research, teaching and testing studies on animal subjects, since it was formed in the late 80s.
“When the federal government instituted the review board for animal research, I said, ‘This is going to be a valuable committee because that committee, along with institutional review board for human research, reviews all research protocols at VCU period, funded, non-funded, doesn't matter,’” Porter said. “I remained on that committee because I felt that that was probably the most valuable service I could give to the university. And it also let me see all the different kinds of neat research that was going on at VCU.”
Timothy J. Donahue, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at VCU, has known Porter for years, having taught psychology to four of Porter’s five children in high school before “retiring” at 60 and joining Porter’s lab to pursue a doctorate in biological psychology.
“I did my research in his lab and continued to work with him until COVID shut it down last March. So, Joe and I go back a ways,” Donahue said. “In fact, it was he who told me about the field of biological psychology when, one summer for teacher recertification, I took his PSYC 401: Physiological Psy course at VCU. Within 5 minutes my life changed.
“I always had a love for physiology and (obviously) psychology and we hit it off,” Donahue said. “We're both the same age (he's one year older) and he's the one who convinced me to come get a Ph.D. with him as my mentor and work in his lab. And along the way, we've not only shared our love of biological psychology but we've traveled to many conferences both in the USA and Europe at various scientific conferences.”
Donahue said Porter has been instrumental in drug discrimination research and is among the few, leading experts. He said he’s also a devoted instructor who cares deeply about his students and passionate about research.
He added that Porter is known among students and colleagues as often saying the phrase, “Come on guys, do the math.”
“While we don't do complicated math in our research it is important to get the numbers right when dealing with drug doses, statistical reports, etc.,” Donahue said. “But Joe uses the phrase across a wide spectrum of issues. I guess it's his way of saying ‘get real’ or ‘think clearly.’ I bet a day doesn't go by that he doesn't say that phrase 2-3 times. And when he teaches statistics, he's fond of having his students work out the formulas and problems by hand — something that is rare these days.”
Caroline Cobb, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, has known Porter since she was a graduate student. He will be missed by many at VCU, she said.
“Over decades of his time here, it is clear that he cares deeply about student success and learning,” she said. “I'm also grateful for his continued mentorship.”
Looking back on his career, Porter said he is most proud of his students. One of his earliest, Minda Lynch, went on to serve as a branch chief at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and many others have gone on to great careers in academia or in the pharmaceutical industry.
“There’s been a good mix of career paths, so to speak, for a lot of these students,” he said. “And I've made a lot of good friends. I actually still collaborate pretty heavily with two or three of my students.”
Asked what he’ll miss most about his time at VCU, he said it’s the students he had the opportunity to work with. In addition to his graduate students, Porter also always had undergraduate students working in his lab.
“That’s an easy one. It’s the student interaction,” he said. “I think most of us really enjoy interacting with students. It can be very reinforcing and also maybe occasionally frustrating.”
He said his nearly five decades at VCU “has been a good ride.”
“It's going to be interesting adjustment. I'm sort of fading out gradually,” he said. “I won't have all the formal commitments I used to have, so I'll be able to set my own schedule even more than I used to. That's the one thing about being a faculty member I always tell people — it's one of the few jobs where you work for somebody else, but you're pretty much your own boss. So as long as you're not too concerned about getting rich, it's a great career. It's a great life.
“I've been lucky,” he added. “I've been able to work with a lot of people in both campuses over the years. Great people, good researchers.”
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