The class of 2019: A student’s perspective on all things pharma

We were keen to get a student’s perspective on the pharmaceutical industry, and in particular what was being taught in universities regarding patient-centred thinking.

So we interviewed Raya Koldova, and here’s what she said…

Where and what are you studying?

I am currently studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and Pharmacology at the University of Strathclyde.

What made you interested in science, and pharmaceuticals/health in particular?

I first got interested in science after discovering the concept of alchemy from fictional literature. The idea of transforming elements and creating valuable compounds inspired me to take-up chemistry and pursue a career in drug development. My journey with pharmaceuticals has had its challenges, as my country’s culture follows a naturalistic ideology, which promotes fear of man-made remedies. Facing bias for believing in conventional medicine did not stop me from pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical industry, although it often made me worried about the lack of proper healthcare awareness among the general public. This concern faded into the background during my biochemistry studies, as looking at molecules and cells, rather than ill people in hospitals, distances a person from the real life implications of health issues. It was the disconnect between academia and patients that made me question my future line of work. My current interests lie in medical communications, and investigation of anthropocentric approaches to drug treatment.

What has your course involved?

During the first two years, my course provided a well-rounded overview of bioscience, covering the basics of biochemistry, immunology, microbiology, pharmacology, along with an elective discipline. My personal choice – herbal medicine, gave an in-depth view into alternative medical approaches, and patient mistrust in conventional practices.  Lectures were central to the course, but workshops and practical laboratory lessons helped shape an overall transferable skillset. After second year, I chose to continue with specialized studies of biochemistry and pharmacology, and pursue a joint honours degree. The final two years expanded on those disciplines, and offered a choice between clinical and applied modules. The lectures for those modules were often held by guest speakers, who shared their first-hand experience in the industry and provided valuable insight regarding theoretical guidelines and their application in real life scenarios. The recently added extracurricular in-vivo module is a beneficial part of the programme, as it focuses on the wellbeing of test subjects and promotes compassion and understanding in a pharmaceutical environment.

Did your course cover any industry-specific elements or give you any industry experience?

My course is centered around academic research, so industry-specific elements were not widely discussed until fourth year. The curriculum introduced clinical and applied science modules, which covered industry essentials – such as bioethics, clinical trials, and drug development costs.  The modules also highlight the importance of medical communication and development of user-friendly products.  A significant portion of industry knowledge comes from guest speakers, which offer advice and guidance, regarding industry-based science careers.  Final year projects reflect the academia-based lessons, however, enterprise and teaching options are also available for students, who wish to explore an alternative line of work. The course does not offer industrial placements, but it does give the option of a summer internship with the university, or a partnering academic institution. Overall, the course is best suited to people who wish to work in academia, but can offer a good environment for students who wish to transition into industry.

Did your course cover any aspects related to the end-user of drugs/medicines? I.e. the patient

At the beginning of my course, patients were presented in a purely physiological manner – as complicated drug-processing systems. Going further into the programme, focus shifted to patients as individuals, which shed light on critical issues with the drug development industry. Developing commercially successful drugs is not as simple as accounting for pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. Instead, post-development elements, such as user-friendly guidelines, effective communication methods, and health inequality management have to be taken into account. A long-standing problem has been mistrust in science, and inability to deal with patients of different health beliefs and alternative lifestyles. Ideally, health advice should not be treated as one-size-fits all, and instead be tailored to a patient’s needs and genetic make-up. Generalized treatments lead to more issues with varied effectiveness in patients, and solidify the medical mistrust within the community.

What do you plan to do once you graduate, and what are your longer-term career aspirations?

I believe that personalizing medicine and using predictive biomarkers to treat disease in distinct subsets of patients is the right approach to increase drug effectiveness and lower overall cost of treatment. My goal is to learn more about that process, so I have currently applied for Masters’ programme in Precision medicine at the University of Glasgow. After finishing my postgraduate studies, I hope to go into medical writing and use my knowledge to help inform medical professionals and the general public about new technologies and innovation in the industry. In the short-term, my aim is to help promote health awareness in any way I can, so I am currently applying to volunteer in a health information centre through the NHS.

What is your perception of the pharmaceutical industry and why are you considering a career in this field?

I believe that the increased use of biologics is a key factor in reshaping the pharmaceutical industry. Treatments are shifting towards utilization of the body’s natural defense systems and manipulation of their function in order to combat difficult to treat conditions, such as cancer and chronic inflammation. In order to minimize the time and cost of manufacturing, the industry is likely to increase automated drug development and minimize human input. Biosimilars could also be an effective way to decrease cost for health systems, and redirect leftover resources into improving drug access and availability. In terms of post-development industry changes, there has been increased focus on the importance of using a patient-centric approach to healthcare. This is the sector I am personally interested in, and my main motivation for pursuing a career in the field. The emphasis should be on ensuring that patients are informed about their health status, treatment choices and how to properly administer the prescribed treatments. This approach, along with personalized medicine has the potential to strengthen patient trust in the healthcare system and promote transparent medical communication.

Thanks to Raya for taking the time to provide such insightful responses to our questions. Pharma, watch out!