Kenneth Sher, A Pioneer in Addiction Science

Rosemary Frank

Sher enjoying the panelist discussion at MU-ARTSS 

Kenneth Sher, A Pioneer in Addiction Science

How a “Random Walk in the Park” Turned into the Career of a Lifetime

A “random walk in the park” is not how most people would describe an illustrious career that spans more than four decades; however, Kenneth Sher, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor at the University of Missouri, is rather modest about his celebrated success in the field of substance use disorders, particularly alcohol dependence. Beyond his humble demeanor, however, is a man whose passion and work ethic have propelled him throughout his career and established him as a nationally recognized expert.  

During a recent stroll through Peace Park, a favorite haunt of his on the Mizzou campus, Sher recalled how his “random walk” turned into a lifelong journey of discovery.

The Road (Slightly) Less Taken

In his poem, “The Road Not Taken,” American poet laureate Robert Frost describes a traveler who stumbles upon a diverging path and must decide which of two trails to take, each choice riddled with unforeseen possibilities.

Sher found himself at his own crossroad in life while a graduate student at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington. Nearing the end of a National Institute of Mental Health Fellowship, he needed funding to continue his studies. At the same time, faculty in the psychology department were recruiting students to train in alcohol addiction research. Sher quickly applied to the program and was accepted.

It was the late 1970s, an exciting time for faculty and students in the IU psychology department. The department was in the early stages of setting up its addiction research lab and Sher was one of several graduate students chosen to get in on the ground floor.

Sher soon found out that there were more questions than answers when it came to addiction research, even though it wasn’t exactly a new field. After all, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and father of the temperance movement in the United States, had concerns about alcohol consumption and described a society with an “uncontrollable, overwhelming and irresistible desire to consume alcohol” in 1784. What was lacking, however, was the empirical research to back up what many already knew: alcohol affects people in profoundly different ways. Much of the past data were anecdotal and based on small samples, or obtained in relatively uncontrolled conditions.

Before IU’s entry into addiction research, there was still a question as to whether alcohol consumption had an impact on anxiety. Sher and his colleagues demonstrated that alcohol actually had a unique impact on each person’s anxiety level. His own research highlighted that the anxiety of a subpopulation of individuals, characterized by certain personality traits related to disinhibition, were robustly impacted by alcohol consumption.

As part of his research training at IU, Sher also learned the value of mastering “old school” research basics, including the value of precision and the importance of being “hands on” in data collection. As he explains, “Only then can you understand what can go wrong and how to monitor quality control.” He came to appreciate the value of collaboration and the importance of fostering learning communities, two research essentials he brought with him later to MU.

Sher secured a predoctoral internship at Brown University in Rhode Island in 1980. While there, he focused on clinical training with one day a week set aside for research and worked on his dissertation for IU and a new data collection at one of the Brown affiliated hospitals. His new data collection there involved data on psychiatric patients who were being treated for alcohol use disorders with an emphasis on their family history of alcoholism. While at Brown, he also co-authored a chapter with his clinical supervisor on how treatment could be improved by focusing on specific etiological mechanisms that, in hindsight, anticipated the current interest in personalized precision medicine.  

The Move to Mizzou

After receiving his doctorate from IU in 1981, Sher accepted a position as an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri. Although hired to conduct alcohol research, Sher faced some resistance when he proposed studying the effects of alcohol on human participants. It was not a commonplace practice at the time, especially outside of a medical setting. There were also concerns about Sher’s initial research project which required the purchase of alcohol with university funds. After those concerns were addressed, and department chair Sam Brown reassured the University’s Chancellor that Sher was doing what he was hired to do, he was allowed to begin his research.

Another challenge Sher immediately faced was a lack of funding. More than half of the “start- up” funds promised were rescinded due to a financial exigency. Not one to let a “little” setback get in his way, Sher jumped right into grant writing, an experience he describes as a “trial by fire.” During that process, he learned to become an effective writer of grant proposals. In fact, Sher was one of the first researchers to receive the New Investigator Research Award from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Since then, he has successfully applied and served as the principal investigator of a large number of grants. The Alcohol and Addiction Training at the University of Missouri NIH/NIAAA grant has been renewed several times throughout the past twenty years and, along with university funds, has provided stipends and tuition support for more than 90 trainees (61 pre- and 33 postdoctoral) in alcohol addiction research.

In the late 1990s, Sher was also successful in applying for funding through the University of Missouri’s Mission Enhancement, an initiative to advance research goals on campus. With the funding, several promising, young faculty members were hired to help strengthen the addiction and research training in the department including Denis McCarthy, a faculty member who came from the University of California, San Diego. 

“People often ask why I moved to Missouri,” says McCarthy who was very familiar with Sher’s trailblazing work before his arrival at Mizzou. “Hands down, it was Kenny and the group of scientists he was gathering at Mizzou.”

Since then, Sher and his psychology colleagues have had many opportunities to collaborate on research projects. McCarthy and Sher lead efforts at the Missouri Center for Addiction Research and Engagement (MO-CARE), where a research team utilizes a multi-disciplinary approach to understand and prevent addictive behaviors, with McCarthy as Director and Sher as Scientific Director.

The impact of drug and alcohol abuse on the state of Missouri is staggering. Excessive alcohol consumption cost the Show-Me State more than $4.6 billion dollars in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 290,000 Missourians suffer from an alcohol abuse disorder, while 15,000 Missourians have died from drug or alcohol overdoses during the past ten years. As a result of substance use disorder, more than 3,000 children in the state are separated from their parents. Those figures only hint at the tremendous impact that addiction has on families and communities. Indeed, the faces behind the figures are why the research and treatment at MO-CARE are so important.

Although MO-CARE officially launched in 2019, Sher has been the driving force for the center’s creation since his arrival at Mizzou. With each grant he secured, each faculty member he helped recruit, each research finding he published, and each person he mentored during the past forty years in Psychological Sciences, Sher continued to lay the groundwork for the center’s foundation. While Sher is the most senior addiction scientist in the department, he is now part of a large group of established investigators pursuing cutting-edge research. It’s truly a team effort.

“We would not have our addiction training program or MO-CARE without Kenny,” adds McCarthy. “Many of the addiction faculty at MU, including myself, came here in part because of Kenny, and then stayed because of the intellectual and training environment Kenny developed here.”

Sher has been a key player in transforming MU’s psychological sciences department into a world-class research group. Due to his ability to secure additional funding and hire more researchers, his department started successfully competing for institutional training grants and large collaborative research projects. Indeed, psychological sciences has had the largest National Institute of Health (NIH) institutional training grant at MU for the past 20 years and one of the few NIH National Research Centers, in collaboration with Washington University School of Medicine, for 15 years.

“I think it’s fair to say that the current group of faculty-associated with research and training in addiction is truly world class,” said Sher, “Because of them, MU is known as a leading center for research in alcohol and addiction and our trainees have established productive careers at leading research institutions both in the United States and abroad.”

While Sher has received many accolades for his work in alcohol and drug addiction research, including his most recent honor, the 2021 SEC Faculty Achievement Award from the University of Missouri, he is most proud of what he calls his academic children and grandchildren, those he helped train and mentor throughout the years. Rachel Winograd, an associate professor for the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is one of them.

“Kenny had a monumental impact on my training and early career,” says Winograd, who compares working with Sher to a grueling workout or sports practice. However, through the “sweat and near tears,” Winograd came to appreciate the man who respects his students’ opinions and perspectives. “Kenny is a true mentor, she adds. You don’t realize until you’re out in the real world, just how rare it is for someone to care enough about you to push you that hard.”

Angela Haeny echoes Winograd’s sentiments. A former Sher mentee, Haeny is as an assistant professor of psychiatry and licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty in substance use disorders at Yale School of Medicine. “Kenny is brilliant and incredibly generous with his time,” she says, recalling her experience as a doctoral student at Mizzou. “Although there are certainly challenges with working with someone who has made a great impact on the field and has many requests for his time, he is diligent about prioritizing his mentees.” Sher’s former trainees now run their own research labs across the nation at notable academic institutions including the University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Purdue University, Yale, University of Florida, University of Pittsburgh, Brown University, Rutgers University, Texas Tech University, Syracuse University, and Medical University of South Carolina; and around the world, including England, Chile, and the Netherlands, just to name a few.

Five years ago, Sher implemented the annual MU Alcohol Research Training Summer School (MU-ARTSS), a program that provides undergraduate students with research experience in the psychological science of alcohol use and dependency. Funded by a grant secured from the NIAAA, MU-ARTSS brings in a diverse group of students from all over the United States for the opportunity to work alongside faculty from the psychological sciences department

Getting into the program is a competitive process. There is a huge demand for these types of training experiences, but few opportunities exist.

Many undergraduates are at institutions where no one is doing addiction research, and this is especially so at smaller colleges and minority serving institutions where many underrepresented minorities pursue their undergraduate work,” said Sher. “Through this program, we help increase the pool of potential candidates who pursue careers in the science of addiction, especially those underrepresented minorities.”

During the 9-week program, attendees formulate their own hypothesis, gather data, and run their own analysis. They experience the life of a graduate student and check out Mizzou as a potential next step in their academic career. It gives Sher the opportunity to give back to the next generation of researchers as well as reflect on the time when, as a young man with very little background on addiction research, he was presented with his own opportunity of a lifetime.

Sher’s Contributions

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Sher’s contributions to the science of addiction, including his discovery that the highest risk of alcoholism occurs during late adolescence and early adulthood. Prior to Sher, researchers assumed that children below the age of 18 were not old enough to be clinically diagnosed. Recent studies reveal that as much as 90% of people who have an addiction start to drink alcohol or use drugs before they turn 18. Sher’s research also revealed the myriad roles that personality traits play in addiction, from seeking out altered states of consciousness, to deviance proneness, to sensitivity to reinforcing the effects of alcohol.

Throughout his career, as advancements were made and techniques changed, Sher evolved, staying on top and even ahead of leading-edge research methods. His methodologies and focus on the importance of longitudinal research have been emulated at many universities across the nation and the world.

Sher has authored or co-authored hundreds of scientific publications including journal articles, book chapters, and sole-authored and edited books. One of his earlier well-known books, “Children of Alcoholics: A Critical Appraisal of Theory and Research,” provided invaluable insight into the impact that genetics and home environment have on addiction. Funding for Sher’s book came from the MacArthur Foundation and was very well received and reviewed by a number of places including Nature, a weekly international journal that publishes peer-reviewed research in science and technology. His research is highly regarded and has been cited more than 35,000 times

Looking Towards the Future

No one’s addiction story is the same. Perhaps that is why Sher isn’t quite ready to hang it up. There is still more research to do and more people to help. And, although he concedes there will come a time when he is ready to pass on the reigns, he does not plan to retire-at least not in the near future.

As he concludes his stroll through Peace Park, Sher reflects on the choice he made years ago, one that has brought so many cherished friendships and memories to his life, as well as insight into the field of alcohol and drug addiction. Although the gravity of his choice was not clear at the time, it seems evident now that Sher found the path he was destined to travel, one that perhaps wasn’t so random after all. Like the traveler in Frost’s poem, Sher took the road less traveled, and by doing so, changed the trajectory of addiction science. And, while there is perspective in looking back, Sher would rather focus on the future and the work that has yet to be done. He’s still very much a traveler on his own journey of discovery.