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Bio Matters: Scientist's career path goes from farm to pharmaceuticals

Jim Stafford: Watonga native Russell Rother is leading Oklahoma City firm's clinical study of a promising drug to treat sickle cell disease.
By Jim Stafford Modified: January 17, 2014 at 9:34 pm •  Published: January 19, 2014

Russell Rother was a farm boy growing up in Watonga and worked on the family's dairy operation. You can still hear western Oklahoma in his voice.

After high school, Rother began a journey into scientific research that eventually led to an FDA-approved drug, a multibillion dollar public company and his current position as chief operating officer of Oklahoma City-based Selexys Pharmaceuticals.

It may seem like a stretch to equate the rural farm life with scientific research, but Rother says his career as a scientist is firmly rooted on that Watonga farm.

“Growing up on a farm is a good way to stir the imagination and creativity,” he told me recently as we sat in his Selexys office at the University Research Park.

“At heart I've always wanted to be a scientist,” he said. “I think certain people with inquisitive minds just know, but it's certainly not the easiest path to a career.”

Rother advanced toward an undergraduate degree in biology at Southwestern Oklahoma State University while working in the oil field on weekends to fund his education.

He was inducted in the Southwestern Alumni Hall of Fame in 2012.

After graduating from Southwestern, there were stops at the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and Yale University.

Rother earned a Ph.D. at OU in molecular immunology with research conducted at OMRF. Then it was on to Yale for post doctorate training.

“I planned to do a three-year stint and then return to the University of Oklahoma or OMRF,” he said. “But things never seem to work out as you plan them.”

What happened is that Rother joined a group that included fellow Yale scientist and Oklahoma native Scott Rollins, who started a Connecticut company called Alexion Pharmaceuticals.

The company licensed patents from OMRF and developed a drug known as Soliris, which won FDA approval in 2007.

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