Washington People: Sally Schwarz

The nuclear pharmacist with a flair for design is working to keep Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at the forefront of research and patient care.

Sally Schwarz, director of PET radiopharmaceutical production at Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, inspects the newly installed cyclotron facility, which she helped design. Schwarz is a co-director of the facility. (Credit: Robert Boston)

Sally Schwarz is a designer at heart. She designs clothes, she designed the extensive garden in her backyard, including a pond. And she helped design the state-of-the-art cyclotron facility at Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology (MIR).

The new cyclotron, in the works for more than a decade, was installed in March 2014 in a newly constructed vault on the Medical Campus. It is a particle accelerator that produces radionuclides, which are used to produce radioactive compounds. Those compounds then are imaged during positron emission tomography (PET) scans to detect types of cancers.

“The new cyclotron has higher energy and increased capacity to produce the PET radionuclides needed for clinical and research use,” explained Schwarz, co-director of the cyclotron facility and a professor of radiology. “It provides additional capacity to partner with industry, develop new compounds and to diagnose and treat patients.”

Schwarz, who is also the university’s director of PET radiopharmaceutical production, is recognized internationally in her field. She is vice president-elect of the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging and will take over as president in June 2016. She is the first pharmacist and only the fourth woman out of 60 presidents to hold these titles.

“Experts in this field have told me they think Sally is the best radiopharmacist in the world,” said Gil Jost, MD, emeritus director of MIR and a professor of radiology. “I am in complete agreement.”

In her blood

Schwarz’s father owned the pharmacy in her hometown of Clinton, Iowa. She started working there at the age of 12, but she never gave much thought to following in her father’s footsteps. She liked chemistry and math but loved art and fabric, even though there wasn’t much opportunity for her to study such design in school.

Sally Schwarz and her husband, Tom Schwarz, visited Prague in September. (Credit: Courtesy of S. Schwarz)

The wife of one of the pharmacists working for her father, however, had a degree in interior design. “After spending time with her, I realized that I could pursue a job doing what I loved,” Schwarz said.

But that realization was tucked off to the side when Schwarz’s mother, a very pragmatic woman, did some research.

“My mother was a child of the Depression, so she wanted to be sure I would have a job after getting my degree,” Schwarz said. “She went to the library, and she showed me what I could make as an interior designer and what I could make as a pharmacist. I realized that a pharmacy degree would make the most financial sense.”

While her main studies were physics, chemistry and calculus, she was able to include her love of design in her elective courses. “I took a public speaking course, and speeches I gave throughout the year allowed me to talk about areas of interest, such as the design aspect of architecture, so I was able to satisfy my craving for the artsier side of things.”

Her favorite part of pharmacy school was chemistry and pharmacology – studying the action of drugs in the body. After she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1971, she accepted a position as a pharmacist at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. Two years later, she moved to Fort Collins, Colo., and worked at a retail pharmacy and then for a student health center. But she felt unchallenged, so she decided to go to graduate school.

“I applied to a nuclear pharmacy program at the University of Southern California,” she said. “Nuclear medicine as a science really kicked off in the late ‘60s. It was still very new but evolving.”

An early morning call

After finishing the program at USC, she applied to a PhD program at WUSM, but she didn’t send all of the required materials because she wasn’t convinced it was something she really wanted to do. Early one morning, she received a call from Michael Welch, PhD, a professor of radiology and of developmental biology at the School of Medicine. He wanted to know why she hadn’t completed the application process.

The Schwarzes pose for a family photo at daughter Sarah’s wedding in August 2013. From the left are Tom Schwarz; daughter Amy; newlyweds Sarah and Corey Farabi; and Sally Schwarz. (Credit: Courtesy of S. Schwarz)

“I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through a PhD program – and had I been awake, I’m not sure I would have been as honest,” she recalled with a laugh.

Welch proposed that Schwarz come to the medical school and work for a year, half of the time doing research and the other half working in the clinic, where she would make radiopharmaceuticals for patients coming in for scans.

“I didn’t know this person from Adam, and he’s telling me that he’s going to fly me out to interview, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, OK, I guess I could go interview,’” Schwarz recalled. “And that was the beginning.”

Schwarz worked for two years at the medical school and enjoyed it. However, she still had a nagging feeling about working in design, so she resigned.

“I was 30 and it was kind of now or never,” Schwarz said of her decision to leave her position to open a clothing boutique. “The store was in the Compton Heights neighborhood. I had a friend who painted silks, and I worked with her to make clothing out of her materials. And then I started collecting vintage fabrics to make clothes. It was wonderful. I learned so much.”

She ran her business for several years, during which time she met her future husband, Tom Schwarz, owner of Oasis Tropicals, a company that installs and maintains tropical plants in residences and businesses. Tom owned the storefront that became Sally’s store.

The couple went on to have two daughters, Amy and Sarah. Amy, the oldest, is an aspiring actress in London. Sarah is working toward a PhD in nursing with a focus on type 1 diabetes.

After Amy was born, Schwarz decided it was time to return to science. She felt satisfied with her journey into design, but knew she had more to give to the field she’d left.

She called Don Bernier, the medical school’s technical supervisor in nuclear medicine at the time, to see if the university needed a nuclear pharmacist. “He basically asked ‘When can you start?’’’ Schwarz recalled. It was 1984, and she hasn’t looked back.

Back to science

Among the enriching experiences along the way, Schwarz served on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from October 2001 to April 2008. During her time there, Schwarz helped write requirements for “authorized nuclear pharmacists” in the U.S., as well as guidance documents for cyclotrons and commercial radiopharmacy licenses. The latter ended up being very beneficial when she assisted in designing the new cyclotron facility, which includes the nuclear pharmacy at the School of Medicine.

Workers lower the new cyclotron into its vault at the East Building on the Medical Campus. The unit, in the works for more than a decade, is a particle accelerator that produces radionuclides used to produce radioactive compounds. The compounds then are used in positron emission tomography (PET) scans. (Credit: Mickey Wynn)

Schwarz is also on the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention’s Physical Analysis Expert Committee and formerly was on the organization’s ad hoc committee that wrote guidelines regarding research PET drugs.
The organization sets standards for medicine, food ingredients and dietary supplements manufactured and consumed worldwide.

Schwarz has given talks on her expertise in regulatory matters, in the U.S., Japan, Korea, Scotland, Germany and Holland.

At the School of Medicine, she works with radiopharmaceuticals that are imaged after injection into patients receiving PET scans. The radiopharmaceuticals have many uses — in the diagnosis of cancer and of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and in cardiology, to determine metabolic alterations in disease states and to evaluate plaque formation.

Next to the vault that contains the cyclotron is a “good manufacturing practice” facility, a strictly controlled sterile environment to prepare pharmaceuticals for use in patients and research.

Schwarz helped design that, too.

“The beauty of being in a field that is constantly changing is that you have to keep on changing, learning and growing to keep up,” she said. “Being open to suggestion and thinking out of the box has been such a positive aspect in my life, over and over again — in science, design and life in general.”