College of Pharmacy Students Refine Their Skills in Graduate Program

By Benjamin Waldrum

One area where this diverse education is evident is the college’s Pharmaceutical Evaluation & Policy or “PEP” track, which offers a master’s degree and a Ph.D. focused on population health research. The program began offering the master’s in 2005 and the doctorate in 2016. Currently, there are three master’s students and eight doctoral students enrolled in the program.

The goal of the doctoral program is to develop independent research scientists to investigate the value, safety and effectiveness of pharmacy services and pharmaceuticals and related policies, said Jacob Painter, Pharm.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Pharmacy who leads the track.

There are many possible career paths, with a variety of positions available in academia, managed care organizations or the pharmaceutical industry. It’s a small but growing niche in the pharmacy profession, and one with increasing relevance.

“The skills our program instills are exceptionally marketable,” Painter said. “Every doctoral student who has graduated from our program has had a position waiting for them before graduation. In the past, one challenge that graduates faced was finding positions locally. However, the pharmaceutical industry and others are increasingly embracing remote and hybrid work, making it possible to live in Arkansas and work for these companies.”

Ruston Koonce, Pharm.D., COP ’20, is a Ph.D. student in the PEP program. He enrolled in part due to the urging of his friend, Allen Smith, Pharm.D., COP ’20, who also is in the program.

The two friends room together, and both work in the inpatient pharmacy at UAMS.

“As someone with a significant clinical pharmacy background, this program is a good fit,” Koonce said. “I already have the pharmaceutical knowledge, and learning the statistical side and combining those two is where graduates fit the best.”

“The flexibility of what you can do in this field is pretty endless,” said Smith, who spent the summer in Boston developing economic models for a pharmaceutical company in Europe. “Just having that freedom of choice is one of my favorite things about this. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities.”

It’s a different way of practicing pharmacy, as opposed to the traditional individual patient-focused pharmacist role. However, the end goal is the same: making sure patients have the best outcomes possible using the most affordable methods.

“We’re not directly caring for patients, but at times we do want patient input, because it’s such an important factor for looking at the outcomes that are important to them,” Koonce said.

“We’re definitely switching the mindset from an individual, one-on-one treating a patient, to really thinking more about public health — so looking at trends in the population and doing research, and learning how to do that through coding,” Smith said.

The other half of the College of Pharmacy graduate program, also offering master’s and doctoral degrees, is the Pharmaceutical Sciences track. It aligns more closely with pharmaceuticals and drug development, using innovative research to improve drug treatments to optimize patient outcomes. Graduates can find careers in drug discovery, analysis and quality as well as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

Christopher Godwin, Pharm.D., COP ’22, is a Fellow of the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education and one of the first students to enroll in the program. He started pursuing his graduate degree in 2020, while he was halfway through his pharmacy degree. A native of Sardis, a small community near Bauxite, he commutes to the UAMS Little Rock campus every day.

Students have multiple options for the type of lab they want to work in. Godwin chose to take part in the radiation biology labs, which look at ways to improve various cancer treatments. Specifically, he’s focusing on testing liver cancer cells and new treatments.

“A lot of the stuff that we test in radiation biology will be drugs that they’re working on in the drug discovery lab,” Godwin said. “Where they’re trying to derive things from extracts, we’re looking at how we can use it and how effective it will be.”

Godwin is interested in helping patients through clinical trials and appreciates that the three aspects of UAMS’s mission — research, education and patient care — all come together in an ideal environment to make clinical trials possible.

“I feel that clinical trials are a good way for someone who has a research and clinical background to look into, because it mixes both,” Godwin said. “I like being able to put the whole picture together. You get part of it when you’re doing it in a lab, looking at cells, but that’s not what’s going to happen when a person takes the drug.”

Godwin said he’s working to secure a position as a hospital pharmacist at UAMS. While it would be convenient for him as a student, he really likes the unique opportunity that UAMS provides to educate others.

“I would love to be somewhere like this, where I can have a position in the hospital, work as a pharmacist and teach someone.”