FDA Fellowship Helps Guide Pharmacy Student’s Path Forward

By Benjamin Waldrum

Last year, Thomas was one of four students nationwide accepted for a summer fellowship hosted by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, or ORISE. The ORISE fellowship allowed her to conduct collaborative research on pharmacodynamics, or the effects of drugs, and aging in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Clinical Pharmacology.

“We are proud of Szarria’s work in the ORISE program,” said Ashok Philip, Ph.D., dean of student services. “It recognizes her intellect, leadership potential and passion for the pharmacy profession, which will undoubtedly make her an asset to any health care team.”

“It was a wonderful surprise to learn of Szarria’s interest in geriatrics last summer during the ORISE program,” said Lisa Hutchison, Pharm.D., MPH, professor and vice chair for the College of Pharmacy, as well as a clinical pharmacist in the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. “She had excellent mentors, which made the experience all the more valuable.”

The ORISE Research Participation Program at the FDA is an educational and training program designed to provide opportunities for college students, recent graduates and university faculty to connect with the unique resources of the FDA. With the support of an assigned mentor, participants conduct research using equipment not found on most college campuses. These research experiences compliment the educational nature of the programs and make participants aware of potential STEM employment opportunities at the sponsoring agency. Participants have access to unique research and training opportunities, top scientists and engineers, and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment.

The program is administered by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) through ORISE, under an agreement between the FDA and the U.S. Department of Energy. ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists.

Thomas worked virtually with Johnny Lau, R.Ph., Ph.D., a senior clinical pharmacist with the FDA’s Office of Clinical Pharmacology, and Patricia Slattum, Pharm.D., Ph.D., co-director of the Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, and others on a comprehensive review summarizing current literature on pharmacodynamics in older adults. The project’s goal is to identify gaps in understanding and opportunities for future research that support the FDA’s efforts to improve drug evaluation for older adults.

Thomas said she’s passionate about expanding the breadth of knowledge about geriatric patients.

“When it comes to medicine and the older population, there’s very little information,” Thomas said. “We have a ton of information on pediatrics and middle-aged adults, but when it comes to treating an older person, the information is slim to none. So when I found the opportunity to research how medication would affect the geriatric population, I was like, ‘This is right up my alley.’”

The group continues to work together to synthesize their findings and prepare a manuscript for publication later this year. Slattum said Thomas’s work has been a key part of that effort.

“I was so impressed with Szarria’s commitment and willingness to jump right into the project, especially considering that the other fellows were fourth-year pharmacy students or Ph.D. students,” Slattum said. “She learned quickly, asked good questions and continues to contribute positively to the work of the team. I expect that Szarria will make important contributions to our field as a pharmacist and potentially as a researcher in the future.”

“I enjoyed gathering the information from those articles and putting it together so that, when I get my Pharm.D., I can implement it into my daily life,” Thomas said. “It taught me how to be a better pharmacist and how to collaborate with an interprofessional team.”