Todd Vanderah, PhD, professor and department head of the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson’s Department of Pharmacology, was named an Alumni of the Year for 2023 by the University of Arizona Alumni Foundation.
Dr. Vanderah is also the director of the University of Arizona Health Sciences Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center (CPAC) and co-director of the College of Medicine – Tucson’s MD/PhD dual-degree program. He earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology in 1991 and a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology in 1995, both from UArizona. He joined the faculty at the College of Medicine – Tucson in 1997.
“This award means a lot to me because it recognizes the dedication and devotion that I have put forth at the University of Arizona after receiving my degrees,” Dr. Vanderah said. “I never imagined that I would become a tenured professor and a department head at a top-tier research institution like the University of Arizona.”
Dr. Vanderah’s research focuses on identifying novel molecular targets in the human body and novel compounds that can act on those targets to inhibit chronic pain while not leading to addiction. Specifically, his research looks at cannabinoids for chronic pain management.
“I was intrigued by what causes some individuals to fall into substance use disorder while others do not and what part of the brain is active in addiction,” Dr. Vanderah said. “The University of Arizona Health Sciences and the College of Medicine – Tucson have been very supportive of the many projects and programs I have created, including the new Bachelor of Science in Medicine, which launched in the fall of 2022, and opening the Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center.”
A strategic initiative of UArizona Health Sciences, the CPAC addresses the opioid epidemic from several fronts, ranging from preclinical and clinical research to clinical care, education, legislation, and technology development. More than 50 million people in the U.S. are affected by chronic pain, which negatively affects multiple aspects of health, including sleep, cognitive processes and brain function, mood or mental health, and overall quality of life.
“We are proud of Dr. Vanderah and his many accomplishments at the College of Medicine – Tucson,” said Michael M. I. Abecassis, MD, MBA, dean of the College of Medicine – Tucson. “From conducting groundbreaking research on opioids to excelling as a teacher and mentor and being an instrumental driver in creating the college’s newest undergraduate program, the Bachelor of Science in Medicine, Dr. Vanderah has made a significant impact at the college and beyond. He is an exemplary Wildcat and very deserving of this honor.”
Dr. Vanderah, who has additional appointments in anesthesiology and neurology and is a member of the BIO5 Institute, said that when he was in graduate school, he assumed he would end up working for a company or at a small university. The idea of being faculty alongside his UArizona mentors, Frank Porreca, PhD, associate department head of pharmacology, and the late Henry “Hank” I. Yamamura, PhD, was beyond what he could imagine.
“They were famous scientists in their field and the idea of being a peer of theirs seemed out of reach,” he said.
Some 25 years later, Dr. Vanderah is in a similar position to those he holds in high esteem. He has received 29 teaching awards and advised nearly 100 master’s and doctoral students.
“My best advice to others, including junior faculty, is to take full advantage of mentorship by other faculty, take advantage of supportive leadership and staff, and utilize the resources that are available via Health Sciences, the College of Medicine – Tucson and the greater university. I often tell junior faculty to never give up and that success is dependent on being persistent, finding help on the campus and a continual drive to learn and grow,” he said.
Dr. Vanderah was one of 15 alumni to receive a 2023 Alumni of the Year Award during a ceremony on Feb. 3. Honorees were nominated by their colleges and awardees were chosen by the Alumni Advisory Council. The Alumni of the Year Award was inaugurated in 1943.
“I could never imagine myself at another university, and although I have had offers to go elsewhere, the University of Arizona is home to me,” Dr. Vanderah said. “I want other junior faculty, postdoctoral fellows and students to know how wonderful and supportive Arizona is.”