Benefits of USP Volunteer Engagement Span Pharmacists’ Careers, From Undergrad to Seasoned Professional

Nicole Palmer, senior manager of Volunteer Engagement at US Pharmacopeia (USP), and Michelle Then, PharmD, MBA, member of the USP Healthcare Safety and Quality Expert Committee, discuss the benefits of being a volunteer at USP and the opportunities for students and early career pharmacists.

Pharmacy Times interviewed Nicole Palmer, senior manager of Volunteer Engagement at US Pharmacopeia (USP), and Michelle Then, PharmD, MBA, member of the USP Healthcare Safety and Quality Expert Committee, on the benefits of being a volunteer and the opportunities available in the volunteer program for students and early career pharmacists.

Alana Hippensteele: Hi, I’m Alana Hippensteele with Pharmacy Times. Joining me is Nicole Palmer, a US Pharmacopeia, or USP, senior manager of Volunteer Engagement; and Michelle Then, PharmD, MBA, a member of the USP Healthcare Safety and Quality Expert Committee, who are here to discuss the benefits of being a volunteer and the opportunities available in the volunteer program for students and early career pharmacists, such as networking and mentorship, growing career opportunities, and adding distinction to your career from the start.

So Nicole, could you tell us a little bit about your role and the USP volunteer program?

Nicole Palmer: Thanks a lot. Glad to be here. My name is Nicole Palmer, I am the senior manager of volunteer engagement at USP.

And our role—I'll start with really talking about the mission of our organization, [which] is really dependent on the work of our independent expert volunteers. We work to improve the global public health through the creation of public standards, and that's where we come in.

Our group volunteer engagement works closely with expert volunteers from start to finish. So we are there to onboard, we do recruitment, and we also ensure retention and engagement while the volunteers are serving throughout the various expert bodies.

Alana Hippensteele: And Michelle, what kind of volunteer work have you done at USP and what is your specific role?

Michelle Then: Sure. So, I sit on the Healthcare Safety and Quality Expert Committee. I'm one of their independent volunteer experts. On this committee, we really focus on addressing health care quality standards and operational considerations related to the use of medications as well as addressing current public health needs. I've sat on that committee for almost 2 years as an expert volunteer, and I've had the privilege of collaborating with experts from around the world to address issues such as providing drug classification systems to aid in the review and development of formularies. One of the big ones is with the pandemic, creating the COVID-19 Vaccine Handling Toolkit, which offers guidance to many health care practitioners, including many at my own institution. So got to play a big role on that, which was pretty cool.

Alana Hippensteele: Absolutely, yeah. Nicole, are there opportunities specifically for current students, or those who may be graduating in the next couple of months to explore or perhaps for early career pharmacists?

Nicole Palmer: Yeah, this is actually a great time to get involved with USP. We are currently recruiting for a scientific expert in the USP fellowship program, and that program actually specifically focuses on recruiting and getting participation from volunteers in underrepresented areas. We have a very large corporate campus right now we are recruiting for 29 roles, and that is actively available for anyone who's interested, specifically for early career professionals, and also undergrad, late undergrad, or early graduate students. So it's a great time to apply to volunteer.

Alana Hippensteele: What are the benefits of getting involved as soon as you start your career?

Nicole Palmer: That's a great question. We have a lot of folks who wonder, well, maybe I don't have enough experience. But the beauty of the work that we do here is we want to get you in as early as possible, as Michelle indicated, she was actually able to directly participate in the COVID-19 vaccine handling toolkit. So getting involved allows you to really be in the frontlines and have a direct impact on public health and ensure the quality of medicines such as the work that Michelle has done with the expert body that she participated in.

Alana Hippensteele: Michelle, when did you first become involved with USP as a volunteer and what made you interested in the opportunity?

Michelle Then: I was first involved with USP in June 2020, and I was actually pretty excited when I saw the opportunity posted on USP’s website. I've always known about USP’s reputation and standards setting just from my day job. A lot of state board of pharmacies and regulatory agencies serve as USP standards. So when I saw this opportunity, I was excited about the impact that my personal professional expertise could have on establishing guidance for a lot of the global public health issues that they address, many of which impacted my day job as well. So that was a big reason.

At the same time, there's also no greater honor than being able to work with such an amazing group of experts in the field. So just the networking, the sharing of expertise and collaboration from this group. That in itself is a once in a lifetime opportunity—so very privileged.

Alana Hippensteele: Absolutely, and Michelle, how has being a volunteer impacted your career so far?

Michelle Then: Being a volunteer is very rewarding, and it's been a very meaningful experience. So far, it's given me the opportunity to work with some of the greatest experts in the field. Just, again, the networking, the collaboration, lots of thought sharing and discussions that go on during our committee meetings. They've been instrumental in just broadening my own knowledge base, and it's allowed me to actually bring a lot of that back to my day job.

So selfishly, I'm gaining a lot from that experience, and I think it also just goes without saying, but just the prestige of USP’s reputation and being able to add that to my resume doesn't hurt either.

Alana Hippensteele: Absolutely. As a follow up, Michelle, just kind of wondering around the pandemic and its impact on your experience, would you say that the pandemic has changed how you engage as a volunteer, or potentially does it affect it? Maybe more virtual volunteering, rather than in person, or do you still get that in person experience?

Michelle Then: I've never got to experience the in-person experience with USP. So I've only been virtual, but I don't think I can see it being any different most of the time. We're all on video, so we see each other's facial expressions. So, when you're saying something, you know what someone's thinking.

But the group is just great to work with. Everyone's really respectful of everyone else's opinions, everyone's very active, and engaged during these committee meetings. So I don't feel like going virtual because the pandemic has really changed any of that. I think there's still just lots of great ideas being thrown out there.

Alana Hippensteele: Right, cool. Michelle, what is your best memory or experience as a volunteer?

Michelle Then: Definitely working on the COVID-19 Vaccine Handling Toolkit. Because this was just a group of experts working together on something that we and the world just didn't know very much about at the time. It's very cutting edge, very, very new, and I think there was just so much intellectual discussions of extrapolating ideas and concepts from other areas of practice, and how we can apply it to all the different situations that we would have the COVID vaccine being administered.

I mean, we're talking about what do you do in situations where there's no electricity, or we don't have a refrigeration unit for mass vaccination clinics, and we also talked about doing this in other parts of the world, not just here in the United States. So it was just amazing to hear all the different perspectives and experiences and situations that people kind of came up with that I never would have thought of, and just the sheer respect that I think the group had with each other on just the thoughts and opinions and ideas coming out. I think it was just great.

Alana Hippensteele: So Michelle, could you elaborate a bit further on your involvement in the vaccine toolkit? Did you have any specific impact on its development?

Michelle Then: Sure, yeah. I remember there was just one session where we were talking about supplies for the vaccine toolkit—we wanted to make recommendations on what to include and what we would use.

For our vaccines here, we actually got state supplied syringes that came with our toolkit for our vaccines, and the syringes that they gave us were not the correct volume for the vaccine—you need a really small volume, and I think they gave us like 5 ML syringes or something that was too big. What we noticed was when we were drawing up these vaccines, these teeny tiny doses in these syringes where the volumes were too large, it wasn't accurate enough to draw up such a small dose.

So, I think, at that time, the syringes that they gave us during that time, were on shortage, so the state was kind of, I think, just sending us what they had, which happened to be 5 ML syringes. So, when we're talking about supplies in the vaccine toolkit, one item I kind of brought up was, ‘Hey, we weren't pulling up the 5 doses we're supposed to when we're using these 5 ML syringes. So would it be a good idea, as one of our recommendations in the toolkit, to suggest using the best fit volume syringe for the volume you're drawing up? Last time, I believed it was either the 1 ML or 3 ML syringes, and then also considering if supplies allowed the load dead space syringes also, so that we don't lose volume of the unnecessary vaccine in unnecessarily because we had the wrong syringe size.’ The committee thought that was actually a pretty good idea, and it ended up being included in the toolkit, which was pretty cool.

Alana Hippensteele: Do you plan to continue volunteering after this term is up, and if yes, why?

Michelle Then: Absolutely. I'm just proud of the fact that I can contribute my experiences to kind of all these public health efforts that are coming out through USP and, also, just to help continue to be a part of USPs mission. Plus, again, I think I've said it before, but just the experiences and the knowledge I've gained working with such an amazing group of experts. That's just invaluable to me.

Alana Hippensteele: And Michelle, what would you tell other pharmacists who are considering getting involved, especially for any early career pharmacist or those just graduating and starting their careers?

Michelle Then: I'm sure Nicole has already mentioned this but go visit the USP volunteer page for more information, if it looks like a good fit. Otherwise, I say just go for it. As someone who's a little bit newer in my field, I didn't know what to expect when I applied. So I just kind of went for it, and I think if you go for it, you'll be pleasantly surprised about how much you really have to contribute to the group, whether you're new or old, or wherever you are in your career, and especially how much you're going to actually walk away gaining.

Alana Hippensteele:Nicole, if someone was interested, where should they go for more information?

Nicole Palmer: Thanks, Alana. If anyone is interested in becoming a volunteer, please visit our website, or email us at