Undertaking PhD studies at the Otago School of Pharmacy is much more than just research, it's often an international educational experience
Otago’s PhD candidates often work in other countries for part of their studies for several different reasons, according to School Dean Professor Stephen Duffull.
Sometimes students may have to undertake field work in a certain country that is related to their research, or they may have to travel because the equipment they need to work with is so specialised it is not available in New Zealand.
Or, similarly, they may study in another country because of the need to work with an expert group because of the specialised work they are carrying out.
Professor Duffull’s PhD students who study pharmacometrics are able to undertake a three month summer internship in the pharmaceutical industry overseas. After having done three years of intensive research, Professor Duffull says it is an experience for students to work in an environment where they can see the practical links to the work they have been doing.
“It’s an opportunity to see that what they have learnt is practical and being used in the industry and they also get a sense of what possible job opportunities are available for them.”
Deputy dean Pauline Norris says the Pharmacy School offers a supportive environment where students learn and develop their research and writing skills, experience the excitement of research in new areas and contribute to improved medicines use.
Several former PhD students have carried out substantial fieldwork in their own home countries including South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan while taking advantage of the expertise at Otago.
There are currently more than 40 PhD students at Otago who usually spend about three and a-half years completing their PhD.
Studies lead to Copenhagen
It was a specialised piece of equipment that led one of the current candidates, Paulina Guzman Fuhrer, to spend a year studying at the University of Copenhagen.
A BPharm graduate from the University of Chile, Paulina is studying the stabilisation of protein drugs in phospholipids drug delivery. In Copenhagen she specifically looked at protein absorption to oil-water interfaces using a double wall ring rheometer, an instrument not available at the Otago School of Pharmacy.
One of her supervisors in Copenhagen, Dr Stefania Baldursdottir, is a rheologist who taught Paulina how to use the equipment and to do the data analysis of her results. During this time she also kept in contact with her Otago supervisors, Dr Natalie Medlicott and Professor Thomas Rhades, via Skype and email.
In Copenhagen, Paulina also had the opportunity to participate in a PhD course giving her the opportunity to meet other PhD students from the university, researchers working in the Denmark pharmaceutical industry and international PhD students.
She was also encouraged by her Copenhagen supervisors to present her work at the American Chemical Society conference in San Diego earlier this year.
All of these experiences were useful and significant for the development of her research, Paulina says.
‘Blown away’ by the experience
PhD candidate Alfred Tong, has similar sentiments about his experience at the University of California Irvine in the US last year.
Alfred is researching the lifecycle of pharmaceutical compounds, from utilisation to pollution. Having found many medicines are disposed of improperly in the sewage, he is considering interventions to minimise this discharge into sewage treatment facilities.
During his six-week research leave, he collaborated with a professor working in a similar field. The professor’s research group was studying the fate and persistence of commonly-prescribed pharmaceuticals in the natural environment, considering factors like whether sunlight breaks down pharmaceutical compounds once discharged into the natural environment.
A method to model the persistence of pharmaceutical compounds using a technique known as laser flash photolysis was used. “I had never seen such laser gear in my life and was blown away by the experience,” Alfred enthuses.
Much of his research is based on analytical chemistry and hence Alfred was able to work in the university’s chemistry department as well as the School of Pharmacy. He is enthusiastic about the opportunities his studies have presented.
Stepping stones for future career
PhD candidate Julia Korell, who is working in the area of pharmacometrics, is looking forward to her internship at a consultancy and research organisation, Model Answers Pty. Ltd in Brisbane later this year.
Julia will be working on a small research project as part of a bigger team during her time at Model Answers.
During her PhD, she has developed mathematical models to describe clinical data derived from red blood cells. While her PhD will be complete by the time she travels, Julia says the internship offers many benefits.
“It’s a means of gaining hands-on experience of working as a pharmacometrician in a professional environment and to expand my network as a researcher. “It also allows me to build some stepping stones for my future career”.
Article written by Liane Topham-Kindley for Pharmacy Today