One-On-One: An interview with Roy Parker — University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute

Each month, BizWest asks a business leader to participate in a question and answer feature to help shed light on a business topic, an industry or add insight to a field of endeavor. This month, BizWest staffer Lucas High interviews Roy Parker, the new executive director of the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute. This interview has been lightly edited for length and content.

University of Colorado chemistry professor Roy Parker recently stepped into the executive director role at CU’s BioFrontiers Institute. He takes over from longtime institute leaders Tom Cech, who stepped away in July to focus on research. The institute, which Parker has been a part of since 2012, serves as a hub for research, education and problem solving related to bioscience and human health topics that bring together CU faculty and students from disciplines such as biology, biochemistry, computer science, chemistry, physics and engineering.

BizWest: Your predecessor, Tom Cech, is a Nobel Prize winner and something of a living legend in certain circles. How does it feel trying to fill the shoes of a guy like that?

Parker: It’s like trying to replace Michael Jordan. Somebody has to do it, I suppose.

Tom is incredibly talented and a great leader at BioFrontiers. He was super helpful for me when I was trying to get my feet on the ground, both in terms of giving advice when it was needed and getting out of the way when it’s my turn to drive the boat.

I’d rather replace someone like Tom and have a strong starting point than replace someone who’s been incompetent.

That said, the institute, as with all academic groups and many businesses, are going through a tough time financially right now. But we’ve got a good base, so we’ll get through it.

BizWest: Those financial issues — are they related to COVID-19?

Parker: Yes, absolutely. BioFrontiers runs a number of research cores: advanced imaging, DNA sequencing, that kind of thing. So with the shut down, we’ve lost revenue that we would have ordinarily brought it. That’s contributed to the financial hit.

BizWest: Speaking of COVID-19. Is BioFrontiers doing any research related to the virus?

Parker: There are three main things we’re doing.CU molecular biology professor Sara Sawyer’s lab has developed this RT-LAMP saliva test. That’s coming along and hopefully will be brought to market with regulatory approvals soon.

The other thing that’s going on is that two computer scientists in the institute, Dan Larremore and Ryan Layer, have developed a lot of tools to monitor social activity using Facebook data. They built a dashboard that allows county public health officials to see what’s going on in their county in terms of relative mobility of the people who live there. It’s been used by a number of counties in Colorado and Utah.

The third area we’ve been involved with is doing a lot of modeling about what it actually takes to control a pandemic in terms of surveillance testing. We published a paper that basically says we don’t necessarily need super sensitive tests; we need fast tests.

BizWest: You’ve been at the BioFrontiers Institute since 2012. When you look back at those eight years, what are some of the projects that you’re particularly proud of?

Parker: We’ve worked a lot on dyskeratosis congenita, a bone marrow failure disease. People who have this, the telomeres on their DNA don’t work very well. So when they get to their 20s, their bone marrow runs out of replication potential and they end up with all kinds of problems.

We came to understand the molecular basis underlying this by repurposing a hepatitis-b drug and figured out a way to treat it.

What we do is basic research. But it’s this basic research that allows you to understand how life works. It also allows you to think about how you might be able to attack a disease in a new way.

BizWest: When you look forward toward your tenure as executive director of the institute, is there anything you’re working on that you’re particularly excited about or something you haven’t yet started studying that you’d like to?

Parker: One of the big things that we work on is neurodegenerative diseases, which are fundamentally a huge issue in our society. The burden is only getting bigger as we all age. We’re getting pretty good at treating heart disease, we’re getting better at treating cancer. But all that means is people are getting older and developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or ALS. So an important area of science for us to study is what’s really going with these diseases. Once we have that understanding, we can figure out what to do about treating them. That’s something we hope to build some programs in the institute around.

Each month, BizWest asks a business leader to participate in a question and answer feature to help shed light on a business topic, an industry or add insight to a field of endeavor. This month, BizWest staffer Lucas High interviews Roy Parker, the new executive director of the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute. This interview has been lightly edited for length and content.

University of Colorado chemistry professor Roy Parker recently stepped into the executive director role at CU’s BioFrontiers Institute. He takes over from longtime institute leaders Tom Cech, who stepped away in July to focus on research. The institute, which Parker has been a part of since 2012, serves as a hub for research, education and problem solving related to bioscience and human health topics that bring together CU faculty and students from disciplines such as biology, biochemistry, computer science, chemistry, physics and engineering.

BizWest: Your predecessor, Tom Cech, is a Nobel Prize winner and something of a living legend in certain circles. How does it feel trying to fill the shoes of a guy like that?

Parker: It’s like trying to replace Michael Jordan. Somebody has to do it, I suppose.

Tom is incredibly talented and a great leader at BioFrontiers. He was super helpful for me when I was trying to get my feet on the ground, both in terms of giving advice when it was needed and getting out of the way when it’s my turn…