Posted February 7, 2008

Pharmacy students gaining research edge

New grant funds students in the lab

Pharmacy Lab
Ryan S. Brandenberg/Temple University
Pharmacy student John Foley, (left), assists Dr. Ellen Walker in her research lab.
“Dazzled” by how a little pill could make such a big difference, Cristina Santos decided to study how drugs work when she was still in high school. Today, Santos, who received her PharmD from the School of Pharmacy in 2005, is pursuing a doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of North Carolina. She’s the first Temple Pharm.D. to go on to a Ph.D. program.

Not wanting “just a job,” John Foley was searching for a career.

“Working after college, I was unfulfilled and felt like I could be challenged more. Pharmacy appealed to me, because I’m meticulous and have great attention to detail,” he said.


Once in pharmacy school, Foley, who held an undergraduate degree in history and theology, wanted to avail himself of every opportunity and took a job working one day a week in Temple Professor Ellen Walker’s research lab.

“I didn’t know going in that I would find research to be so creative,” said Foley, who was hooked within two weeks and now works in the lab 10 to 20 hours a week during school and full time on breaks.

Santos and Foley reflect a growing trend at the School of Pharmacy whereby students, who traditionally have pursued a patient-oriented course of study, are now adding basic science research to the mix. They want both, and it’s opening even more doors in a field already rich in career opportunities.

Professor Ellen Walker traces this trend back to 2003, when an influx of research faculty began bringing their labs, research grants and subsequent need for student assistance to the School of Pharmacy. Since 2003, the number of PharmD students working in research labs has grown from three to 24.


Half of the student researchers at the School of Pharmacy work in professor Scott Rawls’ lab, thanks to the support of a new three-year, $225,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to train non-traditional students, such as Pharm.D.s, to do research.

Rawls, whose lab investigates the role of glutamate systems in opioid and psychostimulant addiction, has 12 students working on several projects: 1) the functional impact of common antibiotics, such as penicillin, on glutamatergic transmission and glutamate-mediated pathologies; 2) the role of endogenous cannabinoids (i.e., marijuana-like substances) on glutamatergic systems; and 3) nitric oxide-glutamate interactions.

Pharmacy School lab
Photo Ryan S. Brandenberg/Temple University
Dr. Scott Rawls (left), whose lab investigates the role of glutamate systems in opioid and psychostimulant addiction, has 12 pharmacy students working on several projects.

Those graduates who can offer both a clinical and a scientific research background are in big demand in industry and academia. The buzz word for this combination of skills is translational research: work that translates from the lab bench to the patient bedside. The goal, according to the NIH — which is focusing its funding on translational research — is to catalyze the application of new knowledge and new treatments in real-life patients.

“Pharm.D.s, M.D.s and R.N.s are not traditionally trained to do research,” explained Walker. “To conduct better translational research, the NIH is looking to fund well-rounded research teams that include a number of different healthcare professionals and basic science researchers.”

Until 2000, pharmacy students could still get a bachelor of pharmacy degree and work in a pharmacy. If they were interested in the research side of healthcare, they would then pursue graduate study in the pharmaceutical sciences. Now, a Pharm.D. degree is needed to practice pharmacy, which is very patient-oriented. If students want to learn about basic science research, they have to pursue it on their own during pharmacy school, or afterward through a Ph.D. program.

To recognize the growing body of pharmacy student research, the School recently held its first Research Day. Of the 32 posters, half were presented by Pharm.D. students, and half were by graduate students.

“These are clinically trained and educated students, getting a taste and understanding of the basic science underlying drug development and research,” said Walker. “This makes the Pharm.D. a very versatile degree. You can work in a hospital, a pharmacy or on teams conducting either basic science or clinical trials research in hospitals or in industry.”

Both Santos and Foley are still considering their post-school options. Santos is leaning toward becoming a university professor and researcher, while Foley, a third-year student, will begin exploring patient-oriented research next semester. From his projects in Walker’s laboratory, Foley is first author on an original, peer-reviewed journal article and currently is writing his second first-authored manuscript.

Santos, who also worked in Walker’s lab when she was at Temple, advises other students on the value of learning how to do research.

“In pharmacy school, you get the end picture — managing patients’ drug therapy. Research will give you an appreciation of everything that happens before that point. And the best way to learn research, which is like learning a whole new language, is to actually do it,” she said.