Studying in the MA program: the economics of a new perspective

Lawrence Posner with Professors Ray and Heffley
From CLAS Notes:

Retirement in the traditional sense held little interest for Lawrence E. Posner, MD, ’05 MA, Economics.

In 2003 he retired from Bayer Pharmaceutical Corp., West Haven, Conn., where he was senior vice president for research and development and worldwide head of regulatory affairs, overseeing some 800 employees.

He then accepted an offer to become head of U.S. R & D for Yamanouchi Pharma Ltd. of Tokyo, but left when that company merged with another and moved to Chicago.

That freed him to do what most people with an MD and a successful career behind them might not: Go back to school.

It had been on his mind for a while. He felt comfortable in the world of ideas and research – he began his career with specialty training in medical oncology, then spent three years at the National Cancer Institute, studying RNA tumor viruses and working in the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology under Dr. Robert Gallo, a pioneer in HIV research.

This time, he wanted to study economics – not business, he notes, but academic economics.

“Economists like to focus on utility – why people make decisions,” he says. “Economics give you that kind of perspective, on why people make certain choices.”

Returning to school at age 56 proved to be daunting. Most schools would not accept him as a degree student, and some did not even respond to his inquiries.

Metin M. Cosgel, professor of economics in CLAS at UConn, suggested that he enroll for a master’s degree rather than a PhD, to see how he liked it.

So Posner took an apartment on campus in Storrs, commuting home to Greenwich on weekends, and started his first semester with four courses.

“The teaching at UConn was great. The faculty was so well prepared and had such a command of the material,” he says.

And it was tough. In Prof. Kathleen Segerson’s micro-economics course, where he was the oldest student in the class and couldn’t read the blackboard because of a cataract, he earned a C.

He had been a good math student as an undergraduate at Brandeis University, but that was in the days when calculating meant whipping out a slide rule. As a grad student at UConn, he had to learn simple computer programming and revisit statistics, matrix algebra, and calculus.

Other grad students – some the same age as his son – helped him.

“I’m very grateful for my study group,” he says.

“Medical school was easy compared to going back,” adds Posner, who earned his MD with honors at Case Western Reserve University.

But Posner stuck with it, brought up his grade average, and earned his degree. He is now writing a paper with his thesis adviser, Prof. Dennis Heffley, on the effects of health care spending on life expectancy.

Health care policy, a hot button issue on the state and national political scenes, is one of his interests.

“The solution is not that hard,” he maintains. “There are ways out there to spend less with similar outcomes.”

After earning his master’s, he accepted a two-year contract assignment with Bayer, his former employer, before it merged with Schering AG.

Now he serves on corporate pharmaceutical boards – Labopharm, Inc., and Noxxon Pharma AG – and he is a general partner at Vedanta Capital in New York City, where he specializes in health care investments.

His wife, Amy Newburger, has a dermatology practice. Their daughter recently entered medical school at Columbia University Medical Center at 26, after majoring in theater arts in college, and their son is in graduate school in mathematics at New York University.

“To this day, they want to know why I didn’t walk at graduation,” he says.

But he is proud of his hard-earned degree. As he told Heffley, when Beethoven was asked which of his works he was proudest of, he referred to his only opera, Fidelio, because it was the most difficult and therefore the most dear.

Shortly after earning his master’s, Posner was approached by a biotechnology company in California that was looking for a CEO, but he would have had to relocate from Connecticut for up to three years.

His question to himself was, “Is it really going to make my life that much better?” he says.

“You start making economic decisions,” he adds.