Mendenhalls give back for grad students

Opportunity. For students considering graduate studies, the opportunity to explore such a choice isn’t always within reach. Doug Mendenhall has a passion to change that. The two-time graduate of the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy is grateful for his opportunity to complete a master’s degree in Medicinal Chemistry and a doctorate in Pharmaceutical Chemistry. Those degrees at KU led to a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, and he’s now compelled to give others the experience they might otherwise miss.

(L-R) Bill Higuchi with Doug and Yvonne Mendenhall.
(L-R) Bill Higuchi (brother of the late Takeru Higuchi) visits with the Mendenhalls at a reception in San Diego.

Mendenhall and his wife, Yvonne, have established an undergraduate research fellowship for students participating in the Pharmaceutical Chemistry Department’s summer undergraduate research program at KU. Their gift of $50,000 for each of five years, will fund $10,000 fellowships for students to participate in a 10-week research project with experienced research faculty. The Mendenhalls are also considering a planned gift from their estate.

“I believe this sort of experiential opportunity can be eye-opening and career changing,” says Mendenhall. It certainly was for him.

Raised in Seattle within view of the University of Washington campus, he became the first in his family to earn a college degree. He worked his way through school at a neighborhood pharmacy where “a very wise man” and a “hugely influential” force was the owner pharmacist. With lots of encouragement from his mentor, Mendenhall thought pharmacy seemed like a route to pursue at UW. A young dynamic professor at Washington was also influential, and it happened that he was a graduate of the University of Kansas.

Doug Mendenhall with his father on the occasion of his recognition as University of Washington Alumni of the Year.
Doug Mendenhall with his father on the occasion of his recognition as University of Washington Alumni of the Year.

“Pharmacy degrees from quality schools such as Washington and Kansas were and are highly sought after,” said Mendenhall. “Ed Smissman, from the KU Medicinal Chemistry Department, was a big name back then. I heard him speak about grad school opportunities and thought his message was very impressive.” That and the connection from his Washington professor was enough to get him to Lawrence where he got to work toward his master’s degree in Smissman’s department and later with the legendary Takeru Higuchi, during his doctoral degree. Mendenhall had not thought these experiences possible until an unexpected summer job.

“I had a similar summer research experience, and it opened some new doors to me—ones I chose to follow,” he said. “I’ve had a very satisfying career, so I thought, if I could somehow provide that experience for others,” he let that trail off to future possibilities.

“Some of these kids will probably have their eyes opened as I did, and that’s the whole idea; to show people other paths—not that the path they're on now is a bad one—but it’s a good thing for students to see other possibilities in life, especially when they are early in their career and have the flexibility to try them.”

Mendenhall admits he didn’t have a grand plan for his career. He started his master’s degree and then got drafted. Two years later he was back in school. After finishing his degree, Mendenhall spent two years working in pharmaceutical development in Kansas City then was enticed back to KU to work on a Ph.D. His education at KU gave him the opportunity to work at some of the biggest names in pharma—Abbott, Glaxo, Merck—where he developed a reputation for managing people well and “getting things done.”

“Frankly, I was in pretty high demand,” recalls Mendenhall who retired from Merck in 2008. “I took advantage of what situations were there. I inched along, one accomplishment after another. It all worked out very well.”

One of those accomplishments was having a hand in developing one of the first anti-viral treatments for the AIDS virus. He enjoyed a career that made a difference in countless lives. Mendenhall recalled a car ride he shared with a woman who suffered from migraine headaches. When he told her that he had worked on a successful migraine medicine, that she happened to be taking, she began to cry. For the first time in years, she told him, she was able to live her life again completely, without fearing she was going to have a debilitating attack in the middle of some event. “You suddenly realize—personally, one-on-one—the power you have in your profession to truly change and improve people’s lives,” he said.

Top Photo: KU Pharm Chem students stop in Plains, GA on their way to an AAPS meeting in Orlando in 1976. It was a couple of weeks after Jimmy Carter was elected president, and they got to meet the president's mother Lillian (top picture) and take a break in front of Billie Carter's (the president's brother) gas station. (L-R) Brad Anderson (professor at Kentucky), Lillian Carter, Nemi Jain (top scientists at BMS Pharmaceuticals), and Doug Mendenhall. Bottom Photo: (L-R) Rod Pearlman, Brad Anderson and Doug Mendenhall at Billie Carter's gas station in Plains, GA, 1976.
Top Photo: KU Pharm Chem students stop in Plains, GA on their way to an AAPS meeting in Orlando in 1976. It was a couple of weeks after Jimmy Carter was elected president, and they got to meet the president's mother Lillian. (L-R) Brad Anderson (professor emeritus at Kentucky), Lillian Carter, Nemi Jain (a former leading pharmaceutical scientist), and Doug Mendenhall.
Bottom Photo: (L-R) Rod Pearlman (dementia researcher and pharma executive), Brad Anderson and Doug Mendenhall at Billy Carter's gas station in Plains, GA, 1976.

One aspect of his graduate experiences that Mendenhall cherishes is the exposure to other students and faculty from varying academic backgrounds. He’s hoping a new generation of KU Pharmacy students will receive the same benefits of building relationships with a diverse group of people with different perspectives.

“That’s where you get real synergy, when you start integrating these different pieces from around the world and around the country. That is where you really get the enrichment,” he said.

Mendenhall and his wife are hoping that these fellowships will “be a starter and not an ender.” He’s hoping other entities—individuals, businesses and associations—will see the upside of these fellowship experiences and relationships and join him in extending the reach of this effort to more students in the future.

He suggests philanthropy is not really about the money. More often than not, he says, pharmacy careers generate plenty of money, and when the career is over, it’s time to pay some back. “The hard part often is, people just can’t see a way to make a meaningful contribution you can feel,” said Mendenhall. “In this program, you just make the contribution one student at a time. You don’t have to solve it all. If there are enough people out there doing this, and all of us in our small way help, then bingo! It makes a big difference—for the university and the students.”

For more information about giving to the KU School of Pharmacy, please contact Beth Bucklin, development director, bbucklin@kuendowment, 785-832-7477.