The Zehner family poses for a selfie in front of the ocean.
Wednesday, April 24, 2024

There are very few people in the world who can claim to turn missiles into medicine but John Zehner (BS ’91) is among them.

Zehner, a nuclear pharmacist, is partner and CEO of SpectronRx, a contract manufacturing and development organization that specializes in radiopharmaceuticals. In 2027, when Purdue’s new Nursing and Pharmacy Education Building opens, the nuclear pharmacy lab will be outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment because of Zehner’s generosity on Purdue Day of Giving.

Purdue’s College of Pharmacy is home to the nation’s oldest and largest nuclear pharmacy program—something Zehner takes pride in and is passionate about supporting.


Zehner, who hails from Monterey, Indiana, said his first inclination was to study engineering in college. But with few resources to help him decipher which type of engineering would best suit him, and at the urging of his high school guidance counselor, he decided on pharmacy instead.

“Pharmacy was kind of happenstance,” Zehner said. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I liked that pharmacy was a professional degree and that it offered a bit of an advantage in the workforce. Once I got into it, I knew it was the right path for me.”

Even knowing pharmacy was the right fit, Zehner never let go of his desire to incorporate engineering in his future career. That’s where the late Dr. Stanley Shaw entered the chat. Shaw, then a professor in the College of Pharmacy, was a pioneer in the field of nuclear pharmacy.

Zehner credits Shaw’s influence as part of his success in the nuclear field.

“Dr. Stanley Shaw had an intro to nuclear pharmacy course,” he said. “It really interested me more than other areas of pharmacy. It seemed that you used a little bit different skillset in dealing with the radioactivity. It was intriguing.

“Dr. Shaw was also such a personable guy. He was fun and he gave great lectures. He was just very passionate about nuclear pharmacy, and you could feel that.”

Dr. Mark Green, a former professor in the College of Pharmacy, is another influential person in Zehner’s journey.

Green taught about positron emission tomography, which is now commonly used in PET scans to diagnose cancer. He’s now a professor of radiology and imaging sciences with the Indiana University School of Medicine, and a frequent collaborator of Zehner’s.

“My joke with Dr. Green every time I see him is that I should have paid more attention in his class,” Zehner said with a laugh. “I never thought in a million years that I would do anything with this. It ended up being everything I did.”

Shaw and Green weren’t the only influential people Zehner met during his time at Purdue. In addition to the many pharmacy professors who have played valuable roles in his education and beyond, there was also his roommate, Dr. Scott Chance.

Chance and Zehner tackled pharmacy school together, often supporting one another through the rigors of the curriculum. Chance initially chose a career in pharmacy practice, but Zehner said he eventually talked his friend into joining the nuclear world.

“I was able to convince Scott to get into nuclear pharmacy after he had been out of school a few years, and he has really been instrumental in not only my ability to make it through pharmacy school, but in every step of my career,” Zehner said.

Chance also gets at least part of the credit for Zehner’s introduction to Lori Barr (BS Management ’92), a Krannert School of Management student from Kokomo, Indiana. When Chance arranged for Lori to be Zehner’s blind date to a fraternity dance, none of them knew she would eventually be Zehner’s wife.

While Lori finished her senior year at Purdue, John worked as a staff nuclear pharmacist for RLS Nuclear Pharmacy in Washington, D.C. Upon graduation, she joined him in Virginia and the two were married. They later welcomed three daughters, Kayla (BS Liberal Arts ’22), Paige (BS Liberal Arts ’24), and Maci (Bishop Chatard High School ’24, Ohio State University Journalism ’28).


In 1993, just two years after graduating pharmacy school, Zehner co-founded Eastern Isotopes, Inc., alongside business partner Anwer Rizvi. The company was later acquired by what is now known as Sofie. In 2003, the two formed SpectronRx—a company Zehner says is truly a team effort.

When Lori left her career to raise the girls, she continued to play a pivotal role in the business operations of SpectronRx. The Zehners’ daughters have also played key roles. Kayla, who majored in communication, works for SpectronRx doing marketing and advertising. Paige, who will graduate in May, has interned for the company and will likely return as a post-graduate intern this summer to build up her business experience. Maci has often worked alongside her sisters and has helped the company with various projects. It has truly been a family affair.

In addition to his family, Zehner credits Rizvi, his business partner of more than 31 years and president of SpectronRx, as well as the company’s loyal employees—including Chance, who is director of production and pharmacy services.

“None of what we do here at SpectronRx would be possible without my family, my long-time business partner, or our employees—many of whom have been with us for more than 20 years,” Zehner said. “I can’t overstate the impact of their contributions.”


As CEO of SpectronRx, Zehner knows the importance of having well-trained nuclear pharmacists who can fill key roles within a field that holds so much promise in both diagnostics and therapeutics. That’s part of what drove him to gift the equipment for the nuclear lab.

“I hope this gift lays the groundwork for the future,” he said. “We have a growing industry and I hope it continues to grow. In order to do that, we need highly trained individuals. I've been fortunate the path was laid for me by Dr. Shaw and many others, so hopefully this will help build on that, expand the industry in general, and grow the amount of people who have the same opportunity I did.”

Zehner also credited Dr. Kara Weatherman, Purdue professor of pharmacy practice, as one of the reasons he felt comfortable giving to the university’s nuclear pharmacy program.

Zehner and Weatherman have been friends and industry colleagues for years, so when Weatherman approached him with a chance to bolster the program, Zehner said he felt confident knowing the program was in good hands.

“Dr. Weatherman is in an area that’s very unique, and she deserves a lot of recognition for the work she’s doing,” he said. “She donates so much of her own time to the students. The students love her. Knowing she’s the one manning the ship definitely made this gift an easier decision for me.”

Weatherman said Zehner’s gift comes at a pivotal moment.

“John and the Zehner family’s incredibly generous gift has come at such a critical time for our program here at Purdue,” she said. “With the evolving landscape of the radiopharmaceutical market, as well as new and upcoming opportunities for nuclear pharmacists in the workplace, the updates to our labs and overall training program couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We have had a long history in the nuclear pharmacy space and as our profession branches out into radiopharmaceutical manufacturing, clinical nuclear pharmacy opportunities, and future advancements that we are just starting to explore, it is exciting that we will be able to continue to be at the forefront of providing a strong and well-trained workforce.”


For Zehner, one of the most exciting parts of nuclear pharmacy is its emerging applications in therapeutics.

When he first started in the field of nuclear pharmacy, Zehner said he was heavily focused on diagnostics. In recent years, therapeutics have started to offer a lot of hope, particularly for oncology patients.

“I remember early on we were doing the early PET scanning for lung cancer,” he said. “We were so excited to get our product working, but then you realize there’s a patient who is in big trouble on the other side. So now, with therapeutics, we also get to see that there’s hope.”

Zehner and his company also have had the opportunity to take materials made for harm and turn them into life-extending pharmaceuticals.

Take, for example, Actinium-225, a therapeutic radiopharmaceutical that comes from discarded missiles. SpectronRx was able to acquire the material through their work with the United States Department of Energy.

“We took material from a nuclear warhead—something made for destruction—and we turned it into a drug that is extending people’s lives,” Zehner said. “We treated our first patient a couple of years ago, and have done several since, but that first one really hit home. We literally took a missile and made it medicine. It’s just incredible.”

Because of Zehner’s generosity to the Purdue College of Pharmacy, doors will open for future nuclear pharmacists to continue finding incredible ways to change and improve the lives of countless patients—a truly priceless gift.


If you wish to find a meaningful way to create your own legacy within the College of Pharmacy, please reach out to Travis Smith, senior director of development, or Carrie Bright, director of development.


Photo caption: Lori, Maci, Paige, Kayla, and John Zehner (submitted by the Zehner family)