When It Comes to Research, Students Learn to ‘Just Do It’

It is one thing to be taught the elements of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences.  It is quite another to experience them.

The College of Pharmacy is dedicated to exceptional training for students – and certainly that training includes classroom instruction. But just as important is experiencing the discovery process – discovery that comes from investigation, inquiry, examination, and introspection. These essential elements are found in research, a field that is paramount to the College’s training ground. 

The research process is solidified by experiential learning provided by faculty mentors who are dedicated to student success. The training philosophy is basic but robust – students must have hands-on experience with the methodologies they are learning in the classroom. Simply put, the College of Pharmacy is committed to a research doctrine parallel to the famous Nike mantra –  “Just Do It.” 

In her paper, Teaching Research: We Need Each Other, published in Medium.com, Dr. Andrea Sikora, Associate Professor at the College of Pharmacy’s extended campus in Augusta, tells the story of a student who once asked, “Based on your experience, what makes you a good researcher?” Dr. Sikora writes that her first thought was “…my acceptance of boredom and solitude, the ability to delay gratification, and relentless optimism despite overwhelming odds.” However, she replied to the student, “curiosity and persistence.”  She follows up with a query to the reader, “How do you teach that?  How do you teach the joy of a long-awaited discovery or seeing your name in bold on a published manuscript? .…[this] ephemera of scientific discovery cannot be taught, only experienced.” 

Whether a part of the College’s Doctor of Pharmacy program; one of the many Graduate program tracks; the B.S. in Pharmaceutical Sciences degree; the residency program; or online regulatory sciences graduate certificates and degree programs, all students are given opportunities to participate in research. From elective courses that offer hands-on research experience, to participation in active research programs and laboratories led by faculty members, to mentored research projects, to research poster presentations at national meetings, to co-authoring research papers – the possibilities for pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences discovery can be endless if you’re enrolled at UGA Pharmacy. 

“The College emphasizes research as an important skill set for our students,” said Dean Kelly Smith. “But only through hands-on training of the essential elements of research can a student receive a well-rounded experience. This strategy ensures that we produce the best possible professionals who will take the pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences fields into the future.”


How the College Teaches Research

“As we teach research, we help our students fill a virtual tool box with research methodologies and skill sets they need to be successful in our graduate programs,” said Dr. Henry N. Young, Head of the Department of Clinical and Administrative Pharmacy (CAP) and the Kroger Professor at the College. According to Dr. Young, the toolbox contents also include skills to review and write research papers, theories learned in classrooms, training in a laboratory environment, mentoring and collaborating with fellow students and faculty, creating informative poster presentations, understanding ethical boundaries, writing grant and fellowship applications, and much more.

Along with utilizing these tools, understanding the philosophical or conceptual theories of the discipline is just as important in the learning process. To instill these critical concepts, Dr. Young notes that faculty use a teaching strategy to move students across levels of mastery – Bloom’s Taxonomy. A hierarchical ordering of cognitive skills that help teachers and students in the classroom, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a learning foundation that uses knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation in its process.

“The ideal student comes to the CAP program with their capstone or thesis and dissertation concept already in mind,” said Dr. Somanath Shenoy, Assistant Department Head for Research and Graduate Education in the Department of Clinical and Administrative Pharmacy at the extended campus in Augusta. “This allows them to easily apply the methodologies and concepts we are teaching and establish working relationships between faculty and fellow students within the disciplines. They are not just listening in a classroom; they are applying what they are learning at the laboratory bench and in the field.”

A similar research teaching methodology rings true for CAP’s graduate school partner at the College – the Department of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences (PBS).  Dr. Eileen Kennedy, Associate Department Head and Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Pharmacy, remarked, “In addition to classes, the primary method that graduate students are taught to be researchers is through hands-on experience in labs where they help design experiments, consider appropriate controls, and then perform the experiments. This work is largely hypothesis-driven in which students are focused on asking particular questions about a disease or its treatment.” Kennedy added that success is demonstrated by student awards, publications, invitations to present their work at meetings and conferences, and placement in postdoctoral or scientist positions upon graduation.

Assistant Professor Dr. Eugene Douglass, a fellow PBS faculty member, shared how he teaches research in the classroom and in his lab, which specializes in the design of small-molecule drugs based on biological mechanisms. “In my experience, there are two steps students should take to learn the research process: 1) build technical skills; and, 2) learn the practice of the scientific method. The first step is pretty similar to laboratory classes. The second step is the hardest and most unstructured – it involves analyzing data, thinking creatively, and designing experiments.”

Elements Dr. Douglass encourages students to follow are: 1) offer technical support to a senior researcher in the lab and ask questions;  2) do independent work by having a simple, circumscribed goal that is possible with learned technical skills; and, 3) increase the complexity of the next project. Additional pieces of advice for students from Dr. Douglass: always ask questions and don’t worry about failure; it is normal for cutting-edge work. “I often quote Enrico Fermi (the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1, and a member of the Manhattan Project) to students if they get discouraged because an experiment didn’t behave the way we expected it to. ‘There are two possible outcomes:  If the experiment confirms the hypothesis, then you made a measurement. If the results are contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.'” 

The College’s undergraduate program, the Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences (BSPS), makes the rigor of research an integral part of the curriculum by a student’s junior year.  “Our students are entrenched in research from the moment they hit the classroom,” said Dr. Gurvinder Singh Rehki, Director of the BSPS program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this academic year. “Requirements include two research courses, one year of research training with a faculty mentor that allows students to participate in poster presentations at the College’s Research Day and UGA’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO), and others.”

He added, “One of the many benefits of undergraduates knowing and understanding research is that it often draws them to continue their education at the graduate level. So, our research engagement becomes a win for the student and a win for the pharmaceutical science field of study.  And if the student chooses to enroll in our graduate program, then it’s a win-win-win trifecta.”

The professional PharmD program has similar research pursuits for its PharmD students.  According to Dr. Duc Do, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, professional PharmD students can choose to participate in research. “Our students have an opportunity to take the PHRM 5980 elective course, which offers research credit hours.  Students engage with a faculty mentor who provides them with experiential learning about a specific research topic. Everything from writing a research paper, to making poster presentations, to working on patient-related and outcomes studies are part of a PharmD’s research learning track.”

Dr. Andrew Darley is the Director of Professional Education and echoed Dr. Do’s remarks. “Our PharmD program emphasizes development of knowledge and skills that support lifelong learning of our graduates throughout their careers. Given the constantly changing pharmacy field, an understanding of how to identify, interpret, conduct, and apply evidence and research to their area of practice is essential.”

 

Alanazi and Phillips Exemplify Student Success

Abdulaziz (Abdul) Alanazi, PharmD, MS ‘22 exemplifies a College of Pharmacy student who possesses an excellent research acumen. Alanazi currently is enrolled in the Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics (CET) doctoral program, reflecting his passion for exploring therapeutic interventions and understanding the intricacies of disease therapeutics. His academic journey has been marked by a commitment to excellence and a drive to contribute meaningfully to the scientific community through research, all under the watchful eye of his faculty mentor, Dr. Somanath Shenoy. Alanazi’s instrumental role in collaborative projects, dedication to publishing impactful research, and his current focus on diabetes-related acute lung injury underscore his contributions to the scientific community. As he continues his PhD research, “…Abdul remains a promising researcher with the potential of making lasting contributions to the field,” remarked Dr. Shenoy. See Alanazi’s complete story here.

Alanazi’s experiential learning process, along with his mentorship with Dr. Shenoy is punctuated by Dr. Andrea Sikora. “I think the most important thing with regard to ‘teaching research’ is that you have to DO it. And you have to do it with someone, like Dr. Shenoy, who knows what they are doing.”  

Kara Phillips is a fourth year PharmD student from Alpharetta, who is on Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experience (APPE) rotations in Columbus, Ga. and plans to become a residency-trained, board-certified critical care pharmacist following her education and training. She conducts research with the College’s Critical Care Collaborative (UGA C3), a think tank of faculty members who have as their mission to foster critical care research and education across the State of Georgia. She commented on her research experience at the College and the opportunities she has been provided. “In my third year, I took the elective Research in Critical Care Pharmacotherapy (PHRM 5980). Because of this course, provided by UGA C3 faculty members, I now have experience with manuscript writing, data collection, peer review, professional presentations, and more. This elective also propelled my current internship with Dr. Andrea Sikora. As a result, I had the opportunity to present research at the American College of Clinical Pharmacy (ACCP) Annual Meeting and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) Midyear Clinical Meeting this year.”

Phillips also participated in a study labeled OPTIM, or Optimizing Pharmacist Team-Integration for ICU patient Management. Phillips remarked that this opportunity has been instrumental in her career development. ”OPTIM is a multi-centered, observational study that has data from more than 25,000 patients and is led by Drs. Susan Smith and Andrea Sikora. The OPTIM study’s objective is to discover the relationship between pharmacist workload and patient outcomes in the intensive care unit (ICU). Drs. Smith and Sikora have given me the chance to be involved in many aspects of project management. I drafted the initial submission through the UGA Institutional Review Board (IRB), facilitated local IRB submissions and data use agreements, and I continue to help with site communication and status tracking. This unique opportunity to participate in research projects, such as OPTIM, has been instrumental in my professional development as a soon-to-be pharmacist and researcher.” 

 

Conclusion

Students, such as Alanazi and Phillips, are not just learning about research; they are actually provided a high-quality research experience, thanks to the mentorship of faculty and the various hands-on learning opportunities offered by the College of Pharmacy. And the fields of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences are better for this educational commitment.  


Dr. Wided Missaoui, Clinical Assistant Professor (c), stands with students from the Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences in the undergraduate laboratory.


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