Students snap up research experience in pharmacy

Undergraduates get grounding from faculty and industry

by Hilary Thomson staff writer

What happens when you invite undergraduates to participate in research? An explosion of enthusiastic interest, as the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences has discovered with its Summer Student Research Program (SSRP).

Only a handful of positions were offered when the program started in 1989 with the aim of familiarizing students with the variety of careers available to them.

The program got a boost in 1997 when it was formalized under the direction of Assoc. Prof. Kish Wasan and offered 11 positions.

This year 50 students are in the program, a full 10 per cent of all eligible students. More than 85 students applied for positions, including students from outside the faculty eager for interdisciplinary experience.

"We've had an amazing response and it's the quality of the students that accounts for it," says Wasan. "They're getting hooked on research and they're being sought after for repeat placements."

The faculty is making an increased commitment to keep pace with the program's popularity, he adds.

Undergraduate students in their first, second and third years are matched to faculty researchers and companies such as Vancouver biotech company Forbes Medi-Tech, Montreal pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck Frosst Canada Inc., North Vancouver's Stanley Pharmaceuticals and British Columbia's Children's Hospital. Students are given orientation that includes sessions on lab safety and seminars by faculty researchers. Projects range from community pharmacy education to basic science investigations.

Second-year student James Rosso is working in Dean Frank Abbott's lab to create chemical variants of a drug used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder.

"I wanted to evaluate where to go next in my career--research in academia or industry or a career in public pharmacy," says Rosso, who also has an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and had completed a year in an analytical laboratory before enrolling in pharmacy.

It is likely the new compounds, aimed to be more effective with fewer side effects, will be ready for testing by the end of the summer.

Elisa-Marie Babor, a third-year student, works in the lab of Prof. Kathleen MacLeod who specializes in cardiovascular pharmacology. She is helping to investigate how vascular systems react to various chemicals. The results may be useful in research that looks at cardiovascular disease in diabetes.

Babor's primary goal in participating in the SSRP was to get a better idea of career opportunities.

"The most challenging part of this program for me is immersing myself in the newness of the environment," says Babor. "I'm gradually getting more confident in the lab setting."

The SSRP can be a gateway to industrial residencies, says Wasan.

Also, many alumni of the summer program pursue academic careers which may help the faculty address its imminent need for professors. About one-third of the Pharmaceutical Sciences faculty will retire by 2004, a reflection of the university's overall human resources needs.

Wasan wants to secure an endowment for the program which has received funding from a variety of sources, including the Medical Research Council of Canada and federal and provincial government student placement programs. He would also like to integrate undergraduate research into the curriculum so that all students get research experience.