In addition to the academic lessons necessary to become a pharmacist, hands-on research experience can help students learn practices and skills that are essential to being an effective, patient-centered health care professional.
My dream of becoming a pharmacist became a reality the moment I received my letter of acceptance from California Northstate University. After receiving this letter, I reached out to Ashim Malhotra, PhD, MS, PharmBS, FAPE, my faculty adviser and mentor for the 2021 Walmart Scholar Award, to explore the various experiences a first-year pharmacy student could be involved in, and he invited me to his research team that was focusing on targeting the mitochondria for novel drug discovery in pancreatic cancer.
Through this research experience, I learned how to conduct best pharmaceutical sanitation practices, how to connect disparate scientific concepts that serve as the underpinning of patient-centered care, how to write and communicate scientific literature, and how to manage my time while working in a high-stress environment.
Research is important for both the advancement of medicine and for patient-focused, efficient pharmacy practice. It is important that pharmacists pay attention to every detail when verifying prescriptions and ensuring good pharmacy practice includes providing patients with their medications at the highest quality standards of care possible.
Proper disinfecting and cleaning of the counter, pill counting trays, and devices, coupled with proper personal sanitizing techniques, provide patients with clean, uncontaminated medications, which became more important than ever after the emergence of COVID-19. During my time with the research team, I learned several of these sanitation skills, including the aseptic technique, continuous mammalian culture, experimental design, and quality assurance assays.
Performing the different assays helped me better understand the impact of pharmacological products on biological mechanisms. For example, the reactive oxygen species (ROS) assay is an experiment that determines the effect of oxidative stress on various intracellular pathways through the measuring of ROS, which are natural by-products that can affect cells in multiple ways. Since ROS can also trigger apoptosis, it is used as a target in treating patients with tumors and is a predictor for efficacy of anticancer medications.
Performing this assay helped me connect cellular biology concepts to pharmacotherapy treatment, which gave me a better understanding of why we learn these concepts in pharmacy school and why it is important to have a strong background in foundational science.
Aside from working with a research team, I had the chance to improve my scientific writing and communicating skills, both of which are essential in pharmacy. Scientific writing and communicating with other health care professionals can be daunting, but collaboration and coordination of novel ideas and treatments are necessary to contribute to the advancement of medicine.
Fortunately, the research team I was a part of actively exposed me to the world of scientific literature and how to appropriately communicate data through the creation of posters, book chapters, manuscripts, and presentations. By presenting at conferences, such as the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists Midyear Meeting and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Annual Meeting, I learned to practice my presentation skills in front of other health care professionals, further fortifying my professional confidence and competence.
Lastly, time management is an important skill for any future pharmacist. Without it, I would not have been able to balance school, work, and research. On top of that, effective time management gave me more time to focus on my well-being during the school year and decreased my overall stress.
Although performing under stress is not a skill taught in school, it is a valuable skill to have for any professional pharmacy career. During lab meetings, we are put on
the spot and asked to explain our experiments and their significance. Being ready to answer unexpected questions is stressful, but it is similar to being on rotation and being asked questions by a preceptor.
Working with a deadline and being put on the spot in the lab also helped prepare me for my advanced pharmacy practice experience rotations and, subsequently, will continue to help me throughout my career. Acquiring the skills related to time and stress management coupled with the opportunity to integrate foundational sciences with experiential learning is challenging, but it is comforting to remember that these experiences are universal. Not only pharmacy students, but many students from other professional backgrounds are also experiencing similar challenges.
As an academic goal, the desire for the betterment of human life (ie, drug discovery research) is a noble goal in and of itself. Yet, more specifically, the ultimate goal
of the pharmacy profession is to improve the quality of patients’ lives and decrease disease burden and related morbidity and mortality. Being a part of Malhotra’s lab helped me understand this specific goal with greater clarity, gain the skills I needed to perform at my highest level on rotations, and develop my professional persona as a future practicing pharmacist.
However, the lessons I’ve learned from my research experience go beyond the professional sphere, which is largely due to the efforts of my mentor over the past 3 years. For pharmacy students—both current and future—I would highly recommend finding a faculty member that conducts research that is of professional interest. In addition to practical experience, a mentor-mentee relationship in pharmacy school can provide guidance to help achieve personal, academic, and career goals. My experiences helped me contextualize the universality and significance of hypothesis-driven, evidence-based, scientific discovery and scholarship, as well as the need for practicing effective and audience-targeted communication as a pharmacist.
James Lugtu s a PharmD candidate at California Northstate University College of Pharmacy.