USP Expert: A Pharmacist Saved My Father’s Life as We Emigrated From Iraq, ‘That's Why I Became a Pharmacist’

Farah Towfic, PharmD, MBA, RPh, director, CEO Operations, US Pharmacopeia, details some of the moments that led her to the pharmacy field and the important role that mentorship played in that process.

Pharmacy Times® interviewed Farah Towfic, PharmD, MBA, RPh, director, CEO Operations, US Pharmacopeia (USP), on what it means for her to be selected for the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) inaugural list of FIPWiSE Rising Stars. The list includes an international selection of pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists, and pharmaceutical educators who have made significant impacts and innovations in pharmaceutical sciences and/or pharmacy education. On the 2022 list, the women (or those who identify as female) included are from 14 countries, with Towfic being the only awardee from the United States.

This interview is a part of a Pharmacy Times® Women in Pharmacy series which highlights extraordinary women of diverse backgrounds who are achieving and innovating in the pharmacy field today.

Pharmacy Times®: You were selected as one of FIP’s rising stars as a part of their initiative highlighting Women in Science and Education. What does this acknowledgement mean to you?

Farah Towfic: Well, first, I'm really honored to have been nominated, and especially, selected by FIP, which represents global pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists throughout the world. I am extremely honored to have been recognized among these distinguished women.

For me, in particular, I have had a lot of mentors across my life. Some men, lots of women. And especially when I think about FIP, I think back to one of my mentors, Jenelle Sobotka, fellow alum of the University of Iowa, who took me under her wing at my first FIP meeting and helped me navigate the world of international pharmacy and recognize the impact that we can make on medicine through our profession when we hear from pharmacists in different countries and recognize how pharmacies practice differently throughout the world.

For me, I want to use this recognition as a platform to highlight the impact of women, and the importance of having women at the table, across the fields of pharmaceutical sciences and education, because I know many mentors have paved the way for me, many women have paved the way for me, and I want to continue to be able to do that. So I'm truly honored by this recognition.

Pharmacy Times®: Why is highlighting and acknowledging the efforts of women in science and education important to you?

Farah Towfic: One of my mentors told me, Tom Temple, when the tide rises, we all rise. I think in being able to recognize the efforts of women in science and education, it creates the opportunity for us to be able to share our unique stories, and it enables someone at home watching, learning to think, ‘Hey, I can do that. I can do that, too.’ For me, being able to acknowledge and recognize the efforts of women in science—that's exactly what it does. It enables another woman to aspire towards a role in a profession where maybe she thought she couldn't do. And I think, again, I've had so many mentors that have encouraged me along the way and encouraged me not to say no to opportunities where I thought, I'm not sure I'm a good fit for this. I think that’s why it’s so important to acknowledge the efforts of women in pharmacy.

Question: What has been the role of mentorship in your career, and why can mentorship be particularly impactful for women in STEM fields?

Farah Towfic: So for me, mentorship is the reason I'm sitting in this chair today. Throughout my career, throughout pharmacy school—pharmacy school itself makes you a skilled practitioner, so to speak, you learn the impact of medicines, the interactions of medicines—but it's the mentors that make you an effective practitioner, through those soft skills, helping you develop that ability to communicate, to network. I mean, I heard about this job at USP through one of my mentors. And, at first when I saw this opportunity, I thought, oh, no, they're looking for someone with decades of experience, and that's not me. There's that doubt that occurs, and you've got a mentor, having mentors in your life, tell you no, that's you, put your name in for that. The fact that they believe in you and encourage you to do that helps break down barriers that are simply set by ourselves sometimes. I set that barrier for myself.

The data has been out there for a while, especially in the STEM fields—women just generally don't apply for opportunities in STEM, don't pursue educational opportunities in STEM as easily. For example, my mother got her PhD in computer science in the 80s, and she was the only woman in her class. And so that motivates me to know that, ‘Hey, I can do this, if my mom was the only woman in her class. And now I'm in a profession that is dominated by females, dominated by women. I can be a mentor to others and help them really understand the impact of having those mentors helping pave the way.’

Pharmacy Times®: Did you observe any female colleagues in science and education being impacted professionally by the demands of the pandemic, and what are some examples of that impact?

Farah Towfic: Again, we’ve seen all the data. Nearly 2 million women—I looked this number up today—nearly 2 million women left the workforce during the pandemic. I was working as part of the medical reserves, volunteering as part of the medical reserves, while working my job at USP and supporting the nation's COVID-19 response here, and trying to take care of my elderly parents during the pandemic, ensure groceries go there, trying to go deliver vaccines through the medical reserves. I mean, women are pulled in so many different directions, I can see how that 2 million number got so high.

Even more unfortunate is that many of those women have not been back to the workforce since. There's certainly been impact of that. I know several colleagues in the pharmacy profession who transitioned to a part time basis during that time because daycares closed, and kids needed to be taken care of. So, several of my friends within my network had to pull out of the workforce, essentially, because they couldn't get childcare during that time.

By nature, the pharmacy profession is one where we take care of others first. That's how we are trained. That's been something that I try to talk to my mentees about, about being able to ensure that you're filling your bucket, you're taking care of yourself, so that you can continue to take good care of others.

I know that this attrition in the workforce for women disproportionately affects women of color, and that’s certainly something that has only gotten worse. Being able to have examples of creating opportunities to bring some of these women back and to recognize that, ‘Hey, there’s been a gap in one’s career during the pandemic,’ being understanding of that fact. I think that that's extremely important because we're just pulled in so many different directions.

Pharmacy Times®: During your childhood, you lived in Iraq, Turkey, and Cyprus before moving to the United States. How do you think learning to adapt to new cultural environments as a child helped to shape your outlook on the goals of your work in your professional life?

Farah Towfic: Certainly, this is something that I think about every single day, because truly it's made me Farah, it's made me who I am. I entered pharmacy because my father, when I was about 7 years old and we were leaving Iraq, he had an asthma attack. He's an asthmatic, and he had a very severe asthma attack, because one of the medications that he took was a beta blocker. In pharmacy school, we learned like beta blockers can cause individuals with asthma to have an asthma attack. So, that happened, and we couldn't figure out why. It won't shock you to know, we didn't quite get our medical records when we left Iraq, to come here—I’m sorry, at the time we were in Turkey. During that time, we couldn't figure out what was going on. It was a pharmacist who identified that, ‘Hey, you're taking a beta blocker, and you told me that you use an inhaler—there’s a drug interaction going on.’

And to be honest, that's why I became a pharmacist. I was like, that pharmacist figured this out. That's something that I want to be able to do for others. Having gone through my journey, moving so frequently, just when I was getting settled, learning new languages and hitting culture shock, as I sort of moved across, it taught me that the world is a very, very big place and health disparities exist. To be honest, it helped me create a global mindset towards finding a place like USP, whose mission is to help expand the supply of quality medicines throughout the world. I can't think of something that is more fulfilling to me than to be able to help support that mission, having seen what health care is like in different countries, and having seen the impact of not being able to access quality medicines and what that can do for you.

It's also made me, as a leader within the pharmacy profession, see the value and importance of being inclusive of diverse mindsets, because it's certainly—I have had mentors who have listened to me, mentors who have included me, others who have advocated for me to be at the table, and that's really pushed me towards ensuring that a global mindset is inherent in all that I do across my pharmacy profession.

Pharmacy Times®: As the only American highlighted on FIP’s rising star list, how has your background, and specifically your international background, helped to shape your work and efforts at USP?

Farah Towfic: At USP, I'm so fortunate to have the ability to integrate my diversity in what I do. I can speak with absolute certainty, I can say with absolute certainty, that my diversity and my background enable me to be far more effective in my role.

At USP right now, I help support the CEO’s engagements internally within the organization and externally in a global world where more than 150 countries use our standards. So with that, it enables me to understand how to communicate with different countries, how to share the expertise that USP offers, so that it can, at the local level, have the impact on the supply of quality medicines. Ultimately, we impact the patient. We don't do so as directly, we go through all of our stakeholders to be able to do that. But ultimately, that's what we're looking to do. For me, having an inclusive organization where I feel like my voice is heard, enables me to integrate what I've learned, having lived in different countries, seeing how hard it is to get access to a pharmacist, seeing how hard it is to get access to medication, seeing the cost differences that happen across countries.

I worked in a rural critical access, independent pharmacy in Iowa, and I certainly have seen the challenges in being able to access insulin and certain other injectable medications. How do you store it in a refrigerator when you have to go an hour to be able to go to home to your farm? How do you store it safely? And that's what USP works on, is being able to have standards for transportation. That's the work that we did throughout the pandemic when it came to COVID vaccines, so that people can trust that what's on the label is what's in their bottle, and it's going to do what's intended for them. I think that that's something that influences me.

Across the US there is a tremendous amount of diversity, and as an American, that makes me very, very proud. And it makes me even more passionate about highlighting that diversity and helping support individuals who maybe think, ‘Oh, I'm never going to have that seat at the table.’ It honestly is the greatest honor to be able to talk to student pharmacists, and to tell them that, ‘Hey, you can move across multiple countries, you can not speak a word of English before coming to the United States when you're 9, and you can essentially aspire to where I am today with the support of many, many mentors, and many advocates.’

Pharmacy Times®: During the struggles of the pandemic, there was significant attention placed on the importance of diversity across the US workforce. As we move forward, what are your hopes for the attention and focus paid to supporting and calling attention to the efforts of women in pharmacy?

Farah Towfic: We know in the pharmacy profession that women make up the majority of the pharmacist workforce. I'm honored to be part of the American Pharmacists Association Women In Pharmacy Committee, and throughout this year, throughout the pandemic, we've been hosting events. We've heard these themes time and again, work-life balance and that outsized impact on women of color. It's especially more difficult for women of color to break that glass ceiling. And so, how can we deliver solutions that help provide mentors in those areas where work-life balance, where women of color and how they can engage, be mentored by other women, how others could let them through the door. Again, it all goes back to that statement, when the tide rises, we all rise.

As we move forward, I hope that that can become an inherent part of the work that we do in women supporting women, and in being able to create opportunities for discussion, especially mentorship. I mean, again, I wouldn't be in this chair today, if a mentor hadn't told me, you need to apply for this position. I think that having a cheerleader by your side, that mentor, is one of the most valuable assets to my career, and I want to be that for others.

Now, certainly, on a personal level, individuals in their personal lives, having the support of a spouse or a significant other, recognizing that you're sharing responsibility, so that we don't have to have 2 million women leave the workforce during a global pandemic. I know many organizations are paying attention to that. I'm so pleased that I'm part of the Women In Pharmacy Committee that's paying attention to that, but we all need to continue to give that the attention that it deserves. Again, it's definitely something that is going to take all of us to be able to fix, but when the tide rises, we do all rise, and I think that that's very important to recognize.