Following this year’s Match Day on March 15, pharmacists at US Pharmacopeia (USP) explain some of the opportunities student pharmacists can pursue outside of the traditional pharmacy career model.
Pharmacy Times® interviewed Diana Kwan, PharmD, proof of concept research manager, Digital & Innovation, US Pharmacopeia (USP), and Misti Spann, PharmD, principal scientist, Nomenclature and Labeling, USP, to learn more about less-traditional career paths in pharmacy, such as those available at USP.
Alana Hippensteele, MA: Hi, I'm Alana Hippensteele from Pharmacy Times. Each year in March, thousands of student pharmacists from across the United States are “matched” to residency positions in hospitals and community pharmacies. In 2023, Match Day is March 15.
This Match Day, many of the student pharmacists will go on to traditional pharmacy roles. However, there are also many other, less-traditional careers in pharmacy that students may be less aware of.
Sharing their stories about just a few of those options today are Diana Kwan, PharmD, and Misti Spann, PharmD, pharmacists who are members of the staff of US Pharmacopeia, or USP. Diana Kwan is the proof of concept research manager, Digital & Innovation; and Misti Spann is the principal scientist, Nomenclature and Labeling. Today, they are joining me to discuss some of the non-traditional careers in pharmacy, beyond the pharmacy counter.
You’re both trained pharmacists working at USP. Diana, can you begin by reminding listeners what USP does, and then talk a bit about your background and your role?
Diana Kwan, PharmD:Sure, thanks, Alana. For those who may be less familiar with USP, we set quality standards for medicines, dietary supplements and foods around the world. For example, we have standards for compounding and handling hazardous drugs. Patients may be aware of our USP-verified work in dietary supplements. I've been extremely fortunate to work at USP in various roles for about 7 years with my amazing colleagues, including Misti here. In my first role, I was actually an intern during pharmacy school, working on a patient safety project over a fantastic summer in DC. I later returned as a full-time employee and liaison between USP and our expert volunteers, focusing on drug classification and patient safety. In my current role, I work within USP’s Digital & Innovation division as a researcher to develop research reports on emerging science and technologies that can support USP’s understanding and decision-making on topics such as “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, and also technologies such as virtual reality for training and ChatGPT, the newest chatbot from open AI.
Hippensteele: That's really interesting. Misti, could you tell us a bit about your background and your role at USP?
Misti Spann, PharmD: Sure. I actually have a nontraditional background myself. I was a chemist for several years and then became a manager in quality in the pharmaceutical industry. And I did that for over 13 years before I became a pharmacist. And now I've been a pharmacist for almost 9 years. I did do hospital pharmacy for a while, and then I began to find ways to merge my chemistry quality and pharmacy experience. That actually took me to NIH before coming to USP, and USP was looking for someone specifically who had a chemistry and pharmacy background. And that's how I ended up in the role that I have today.
Hippensteele: That is very interesting. Misty and Diana, what is your best memory or experience over the past few years in terms of your contributions to public health?
Kwan: My favorite memory is working during the first few years of COVID because the work felt very meaningful. I helped with the COVID Vaccine Handling Toolkit. It helped pharmacists maximize the number of doses prepared, which was critical when vaccines were short in supply—and that was a large team effort. Also, I got international experience working with pharmacopoeias around the world, including members of the WHO’s International Meeting of World Pharmacopoeias. Because you have to remember, early on during the pandemic there were a lot of unknowns. We wanted and needed to have the best information on hand, including which drugs were being studied and worked for COVID. So I helped develop a dashboard to identify monographs for repurposed medications being investigated for COVID-19.
Spann: I contributed to the COVID-19 work as well. There was an asset that was created called the Visual Inspection Guide. It was included in the international version of USP’s Vaccine Handling Toolkit for COVID vaccines. I got to use my background and industry to help create something to help pharmacists look at and know how to inspect their vaccines after they came in, to see if they were falsified or substandard. I was really happy to help contribute in that way. I've also helped our Expert Committee work on a standard to update expiration date formats that will become official September 1st of this year. And it will be a big change for industry and for us in helping our patients understand when their drugs expire.
Hippensteele: And that's really important. Yeah, interesting. So, Diana, what are some of the other roles or career options for pharmacists available at USP?
Kwan: I think pharmacists bring such a unique and valued experience and perspective to USP. It's a great place to contribute. You can use the training that you received in school, and you help carry out USP’s really global important mission. We have pharmacists working with our expert volunteers in our Science division, doing important work. We also have pharmacists working in our Legal departments, public policy, and Scientific Affairs, shaping our public policy and science. Within Digital & Innovation we have pharmacists working on translating our standards into electronic systems and workflows of software and machine-readable data. So, there are a lot of opportunities.
Hippensteele: Yeah, that is really interesting. So, Misti, do roles for pharmacists at USP and other less traditional roles for the pharmacists for pharmacists include opportunities to continue to work directly with patients?
Spann: Some do and some don't. It really just depends on the definition of the work. But they all have patient impact. And that is something that is important to us as pharmacists, being able to have great patient impact no matter what the role is. And so here at USP, that's what we do. We don't do direct patient care, but we do have a lot of impact there. But there are other positions that might be in clinics and other settings that are non-traditional that will have that direct patient care.
Hippensteele: Right. Diana, what innate talents or abilities are critical or at least helpful for a successful pharmacy career? And do you think hard work alone is enough?
Kwan: Oh, hard work is really important. But other abilities that have helped me include curiosity, I think. Not just understanding what's in front of you but understanding global trends on issues people care about. Also being helpful, trying to add value, and taking pride. Pharmacists are playing roles in every aspect of healthcare, now more than ever.
Hippensteele: And Misti, what are some of the other opportunities you know of that offer exciting alternative paths for those with pharmacy degrees?
Spann: Well, there are so many, Alana. We can work in bariatric centers, we can work as labeling reviewers, and work on medication safety, for industry, or regulatory associations. We can be inspectors for Boards of Pharmacy. We can work in drug information, or in other regulatory roles, and also consumer protection or public health roles, both for private industry and the public sector. And I know people in all of these fields. And there's much, much more than that, that we can do in pharmacy.
Hippensteele: Right. That is really fascinating. Misti and Diana, what would you tell other pharmacists who may be exploring nontraditional career paths or who might be considering getting involved with USP as a volunteer? And let's start with Diana.
Kwan: Yeah, I love this question, because I want to encourage as many people to be volunteers as possible, I loved working with our volunteers. But to get involved and to consider a diverse career path, nontraditional career path, I would suggest getting a diverse experience. You know, take advantage of your rotation opportunities when you’re a student, try to get different experiences. For example, at USP, we have rotation students come through. And they’ve gone on to different roles within pharmaceutical manufacturing companies, within FDA, and other places. So, I think that's very helpful to get diverse experience.
Spann: I agree with Diana, and I would also encourage people to find something that might be a little bit different to look into. Find a niche and find a mentor that can help you if you're a student. There might have been something that was mentioned in one of your classes, a professional development course. Seek that out and look for more information about that. There are people—we have volunteers that actually work in our Packaging and Distribution Expert Committee. They serve as experts on the subject of dietary supplements or excipients, because they have actually had roles in those arenas. And the great part about being a pharmacist in those areas is you can provide a healthcare-related perspective to a topic that somebody else may not be able to provide. So, we love having our expert volunteers, but in learning and working with them and finding pharmacists in this field, we find out how many more places we can be and we can work. So I would recommend that even if you're at a conference and you see a company that might be a little bit different, go up and talk to them and learn something new. You might find out something that you never thought you could do before or wanted to do that really piques your interest. So, don't be afraid to explore and step outside the boundaries.
Editor’s note: For more information about careers at USP, visit https://usp.jobs/; for more information on how to become a USP volunteer, go to https://www.usp.org/about/volunteer-experts.