Arizona Bioscience Champions
Alzheimer's researcher follows unique path to success
Thirty years ago, Pierre Tariot was an English major with little interest in science. Today, thanks to hard work, intellectual curiosity, and the advice of a few insightful mentors, he is a world-renowned Alzheimer's researcher, responsible for co-directing Banner Health's new Alzheimer's Institute, conducting clinical studies, and running a statewide disease registry program.
Dr. Pierre Tariot
"Going to medical school was not my plan," Dr. Pierre Tariot explains, seated in his office at Banner Alzheimer's Institute.
Considering that Tariot is the institute's co-director—and a leading expert in the field of Alzheimer's disease research—this statement comes as something of a surprise.
Life for this Arizona researcher, however, has hardly taken a predictable course.
After declaring an English major as an undergraduate at Amherst College, Tariot quickly discovered a passion for literature and poetry; but as the son of Depression-era parents, he had also grown up with a keen awareness of the importance of having career options.
"They were terrific parents, but my childhood wasn't an easy time financially for our family," Tariot says. "So I think at the back of my mind, I always felt like the world was at the door, and I'd better, among other things, get a job."
As a result, he took medical school prerequisites as a back-up plan.
"I kind of passively did the requirements," Tariot explains.
"And I was not a very good science student," he admits. "I really was not."
In the end, his decision to go to medical school was the result of guidance from a trusted English professor.
"My professor said, 'I really like reading what you write. You could probably get into most programs in English literature, and in ten years, you too could be teaching English at a small college. Or I noticed you did pre-med--you could go to medical school and still pursue your literary interests,'" recalls Tariot. "And that idea resonated with me."
During his residency in internal medicine, Tariot says he was "coincidentally" identified as someone who might have research capability. As a result, he was offered an opportunity to become involved in research in cardiology and nuclear medicine.
"I loved the research," Tariot says of the experience. "But I found the particular questions we were interested in a little bit boring. What I decided I really liked were brain-behavior relationships."
With this realization in hand, Tariot enrolled in his second residency, in psychiatry, engaged in psychiatric research projects, and secured a research position at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
At NIMH, Tariot was given the opportunity to choose from a number of areas in psychiatric research; however, once again, he based his decision on mentorship.
"I was like a kid in a candy shop, faced with a very wide array of research opportunities," says Tariot. "But what I did was pick who I thought was the best mentor."
It was this NIMH mentor, Robert Cohen, M.D. Ph.D., whom Tariot describes as "something of a Renaissance man," who first suggested that Tariot look into Alzheimer's disease research, which seemed to him a largely unexplored area with increasing relevance.
Though Tariot says that he was just "going through open doors and picking good mentors" at the time, he now realizes that his upbringing may have predisposed him to have an interest in Alzheimer's research.
"My parents married as kids, basically, and some of our rearing was done at the hands of grandparents, great uncles, and great aunts, whom I adored. So now I see how obvious it is that I would be drawn to the care and study of older people."
Motives aside, he took his mentor's advice, and in doing so, permanently altered the course of his career.
After serving as a senior staff fellow at NIMH investigating the neuropharmacology of brain disease and brain function, he joined the faculty at University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York as an assistant professor of psychiatry, specializing in the study of age-related disease.
During his 20-year tenure at the university, Tariot served in numerous roles, including as a professor of psychiatry, medicine, neurology, and aging and developmental biology, as well as co-director of the University of Rochester Memory Disorders Clinic.
In that time, Tariot established himself as a leading expert in Alzheimer's and geriatric disease research, authoring and co-authoring more than 200 publications and receiving many major grants.
According to Tariot, the decision to leave Rochester in favor of co-directing Banner Alzheimer's Institute — which, at the time, was still in conceptual stages — was simply the most recent of the many unexpected twists in his career path.
"If you'd asked me five years ago, did I picture myself in Arizona, I would have said absolutely not," says Tariot. "But things happen."
He cites the vision and commitment of Banner leadership and Dr. Eric Reiman as the primary reason for his confidence in making the move, adding that the support of community leaders and collaborative nature of the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium were major factors as well.
"The consortium works very well, and it allows us to focus very intently on doing the things that we can do well, while not having to worry about doing the things that we are not very good at," explains Tariot.
"To be truly successful with an ambitious undertaking, you need world-class people excelling in their own areas while interacting with their colleagues to address the other areas."
In addition to serving as co-director of Banner Alzheimer's Institute and conducting treatment and prevention research, Tariot helps oversee the new Alzheimer's Research Registry, a database intended to recruit participants and match them with clinical studies across the consortium.
The registry is the brainchild of Tariot and Sun Health Research Institute's Dr. Marwan Sabbagh. It is expected to greatly reduce the time it takes to complete study enrollment, which could go a long way in speeding-up the drug-development process.
Since the registry's launch in mid-March, 524 people have requested enrollment information, about 250 whom have now joined. Its ultimate success, says Tariot, will rest on continued enrollment and utilization by consortium researchers.
In the meantime, Tariot is adjusting to the constant demands of directing a brand-new institution.
"Anyone who's been through a startup knows how demanding it is," he says. "You have a lot of irons in the fire, a lot of things pressing for attention simultaneously."
Yet despite the unyielding demand and hectic work schedule, says Tariot, his satisfaction level has never been as high.
"All I can say is that this is the most productive environment I've ever been in professionally, and that my Arizona experience has exceeded my hopes and expectations."
"This is convincing me that a really ambitious vision is worth pursuing, and, if it's really carefully thought through, will be supported. And that's really exciting."