An Interview with Laura Yelvigi, Pharm. D Student.

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Laura Yelvigi, Pharm. D Student.

Pharmacy is the family field

October 17, 2005

Laura Yelvigi is pursuing a Pharm. D degree with a minor in business at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia (USP) College of Pharmacy, and expects to graduate in May of 2007. The New Jersey resident initially began her college career at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., with the idea of pursuing either a business degree or pharmacy, and after two years transferred to USP to join the Pharm. D program.

As a student, she is exploring many different areas of the pharmacy profession, with hands-on work experiences including internships. For instance, in the summer of 2005, she worked at the Thompson-Physician Desk Reference in New Jersey, where she helped compile and proofread the Physician Desk Reference Non-prescription Drug Comparison Chart 2006 and the Physician Drug Reference (PDR) 2006. Other internships have included retail and hospital level positions as well as clinical trial experiences during two internships with Wyeth Pharmaceuticals of Pennsylvania.

She is an active member of the American Pharmacists Association-Academy of Student Pharmacists (APhA-ASP), serving in numerous leadership positions at the school/chapter, regional and national levels. She credits her involvement with APhA-ASP with opening doors for internships as well as for offering her the opportunity to act as an advocate for the pharmacy profession.

Laura's dedication to her chosen profession has been recognized with a student leader award from the New Jersey Pharmacist's Association and the American Association of Indian Pharmaceutical Scientists as well as Dean's Awards from USP University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Laura has found through her experiences and pharmacy schooling that being a pharmacist is, "much vaster than counting pills; there's a kaleidoscope of opportunities."

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your Pharm. D education and your educational background leading up to the Pharm. D program.

My father graduated from the pharmacy program University of the Sciences in Philadelphia/College of Pharmacy, so I grew up with pharmacy all of my life. He is in the pharmaceutics business.

I initially went to Purdue University in Indiana for two years with notion of doing either pharmacy or business, it was a toss-up. A year into the program at Purdue, I went to a job fair, and I found there were so many avenues I could go into with pharmacy. I came closer to home to Philadelphia, and I love the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia (USP), which happened to be my father's school.

I've ended up doing extra things other than just the main pharmacy curriculum. I've done research; I've gotten very involved with APhA-ASP with planning events for students, with on campus events as well as out-of-state events to spread the word to high school students about this great profession, and that such a profession exists. It's much vaster than counting pills; there's a kaleidoscope of opportunities.

I've done research in diabetes care and emergency preparedness as an independent study where I worked alongside a professor who was also a pharmacist. The emergency preparedness project was a simulation of a terrorists attack, which encompassed an entire team of professionals: a medical team including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, as well as police and fire departments. We all worked together to create a method to get mass treatment to the site where the 'incident' happened (in Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia).

I did a Phase One diabetes research project, where we were trying to see if patient education about insulin use would help them understand the drug and better control their blood sugar. The goal was to overcome some of the barriers behind why people don't want to use insulin; often they think it's scary because of the needle, they think its end-stage of their care, and that it's their last hope. In Philadelphia, much of the population is low-income, African-American without much formal education; much of their information comes from word of mouth. So the project was designed to overcome some of those various barriers, including financial status, insurance coverage and education, and to help them maximize control of their blood glucose. We created a class, educated patients, and hopefully, based on the data, will conduct a wider study with a greater variety of patients.

How did you decide to study pharmacy? And how did you find a school

For me, USP has a great history, faculty that has been here long-term and is experienced. I was born and brought up in New Jersey; when I was going to school in Indiana, my mom was not happy with the 14 hour drive to visit. For me, when it comes to the pharmacy profession, the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-New York area has a lot of opportunity available for internships and career paths; I've been lucky to try different opportunities; there are so many hospitals, retailers, plus the Food & Drug Administration in Washington, D.C.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in the field of pharmacy

The biggest thing is figuring out what type of a student you are. Do you want a big classroom or a small classroom? How much do you push yourself to get and get information? When you look at schools, some classroom sizes are smaller, and the teachers are going to know the students from the beginning. That's very important in understanding how you learn. If you are a go-getter type of student, you can do better in a bigger school. If you need to be pushed, a smaller classroom size may be better. At USP, they tend to have bigger classrooms, which start getting smaller in the 4th, 5th of the Pharm. D program.

Another factor on school choice is if you know what area you want to go into; if you are interested in the area of pharmacy in the government and policy, than schools in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington D.C. are great, because they are geographically close and have ties to the government and regulatory agencies. This worked out for me because I have experienced different areas as a student; in some areas, the only opportunities seem to be in retail.

If you are interested in research, then look into schools like the University of Southern California with great research programs that encourages students to simultaneously conduct research with the Pharm. D program, it's incorporated into the curriculum. The University of Michigan is known for great residency programs. The more students know about what they want to do with the profession, the more they know what schools to look for.

Location is key. Schools in some areas are more competitive for student experiences; competition is good, but sometimes you may just want to focus on getting the actual experience.

For high school students investigating pharmacy schools, it's important to realize it's a four to six year program, so it's a long haul; In the six year program I feel it is two years of undergrad, four years of grad school. You have to mature quicker than your peers that are going to a four-year college, which can sometimes catch students off guard.

How has your previous education contributed to your success in the Pharm. D. program

It's cool to see that with a degree in the pharmacy profession, you can do just about anything. You could be a nuclear pharmacist; some people cringe at the idea. But there are so many things you can do. I've seen pharmacists open their own shops or clinics. The independence is there, it all depends on the drive of the person.

The drive I've seen faculty use in terms of their career and their profession. My father was a big role model, not only did he work; he did outside, volunteer work - using his profession to help others, not for financial gain.

That's what caused me to push myself. I figure if I'm paying all this money for school, I may as well maximize what I can get out of school and the opportunities available to students.

I don't do just pharmacy related activities. I also dance professionally, I have taught violin classes to little kids for seven years now. I try to keep my options open, while still focusing on pharmacy. It's important not to focus on just one thing.

Based on your experience as a student and as an active member of APhA-ASP, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs

Not so long ago pharmacy was a four-year bachelor's of science degree. Most schools have successfully shifted to the Pharm. D, and have made it very easy for students to transition into such a great profession. Schools have done an amazing job of making sure that you do have the knowledge base and the rotations and experience needed.

From an APhA-ASP standpoint, there are a substantial amount of colleges and schools of pharmacy nationwide that have great programs; students are moving ahead with a lot of innovative projects. Schools are dong a great job in using the faculty and their professional connections to help students pursue different goals. Because of the faculty, we've gone beyond just retail or hospital pharmacy; we've gone into different fields and done things like home infusion, anti-coagulation clinics, AIDS clinics, diabetes screening and participated in Operation Immunization.

How can prospective Pharm. D students assess their skill and aptitude

Measuring your aptitude is key. Some things to ask yourself are questions like: Can you change with the professional environment? Are you willing to learn new things?

In school you learn the basics. When you go out in the profession, it has different variations of the basics. You are not going to learn every single thing about a specific area of pharmacy in your school; it's up to you to see how you are going to use your training to benefit your career. Rotations are a key to assess aptitude and to figure out what students want to do, and the internships and externships are hands-on experiences that allow students to try different areas without the liability of getting fired. One of my friends is doing an anti-coagulation clinic, and she doesn't like it, and that's OK. At least she learned about it.

For myself, I've done retail for about seven years; I don't know if I could do that for a lifetime, but if I could do retail with more patient care, I may like that. I don't want a specialty right now so I'm doing more general work. Getting as much experience as possible is a great measure. Anything you can do for free is great, and it's going to help you learn about the profession. There are lots of opportunities in volunteer work.

What can students applying to Pharm. D programs do to increase their chances of being accepted

Sometimes itt is tricky to get in. The biggest thing is to do is to start early. For a six year program, it's a two year undergrad, four-year grad school program. They are looking for mature, well-established students that know where they want to go. A lot of students are unsure, which is not wrong. But if you do have the notion that you have an interest in pharmacy - start early, visit a college in your junior year of high school, and try to meet with someone on the campus, like a faculty member or the dean of admissions. It does makes an impression that you are seeking a school out. There are thousands of prospective students and only 92 pharmacy schools.

Ideally you'd like the school to seek you out, but that may not be realistic. You may have a great GPA, but it's a fact of life that you need to put yourself out there and sell yourself. After 12th grade, you become an advertising agent for yourself. You need to makes sure you go to campus, spend time or a day with a student to help you figure out how the classes run, the types of people you'd be going to school with; there are different populations at different schools. Remember, you are selling yourself to the school.

SATS are another key component. Try to work hard, and don't take it as another standardized test. Keep your grades up. I wouldn't expect students with low GPAs to be accepted.it's just not attractive. Last and final, always show you are involved in various school-related activities. It shows you are going to try new things, it shows that you have diversity. Get involved in diverse extra-curricular activities at your school, at least something like student government, aports activities, or the arts. Many schools have student committees that look at potential high school students. Everyone applying to the school is likely to have a decent GPA, SAT, is well-spoken, etc.; its the activities that may set you apart, which is what you are trying to do in the admissions process.

Working part-time as a pharmacy tech would show you have been thinking about the profession, that you've experienced the profession. Any kind of pharmacy practice setting is great. They love students who volunteer - I did hospital and retail for two years in high school.

What have been the most positive educational experiences in your education thus far

One would be the association. I started with the association at Purdue. Helped with advertisement, got to work on a diabetes program there, went into the Lafayette community and tested patients for blood glucose, and that opened my eyes. Here I am, at 18 years old, pricking people's fingers, and these people are relying on me to give them their blood glucose levels. It made me realize that eventually I'll be giving advice. I decided that's really cool, that we have such a great opportunity out there to help people.

In Philly, I've gotten really involved in APhA-ASP.

Diabetes is the heart and soul of my interests. We're students, and we have patients looking to us for direction to help them control their lives, for advice. In lab, we have to be very formal, as if patients very educated; in a real-life situation, you need to talk plainly. That's OK, as long as you get the message across.

I notice that people often don't maximize their medications. I see so many elderly people, seniors especially, who are spending so much money on medication, and they get worse. It hurts me, because I'm all about helping people and saving money. They worked so hard for their whole lives, only to end up spending so much of their life's earnings on medications. That's become one of my personal goals, to talk to patients, see what they are taking, to help them work with the pharmacy to see if we can change things to make their lives better. That carries me a little further every day; yes, I'm taking 50-bazillion tests. But patient care is the reason why I wanted to go through all of this and do all of this.

Do you suggest students get involved in professional and other on-campus organizations

I highly recommend students get involved in something. It doesn't have to be APhA-ASP; some associations are more specific to certain areas of the pharmacy field. That's what I advise my peers. Pharmacy can be a heavy topic to come in to. We have to learn every single drug on the shelves. If you get caught up in just memorizing the drugs, you're not going to be best you can be. Growing through an association, you'll learn about current events, issues and trends. Sometimes when you go to college or Pharm D, you are somewhat insulated from society.

Professional organizations touch base on the issues impacting your profession, and allow students to act as advocates for our profession ourselves.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you began to pursue your education

The maturity level has to be there. You have to have the mindset that it's two years undergrad, four years of grad school, because the materials, the education changes in difficulty, amount and the speed it comes to you at.

It's that much harder to swallow if you have friends in other programs who are partying like crazy their fourth, senior year while you're home on Friday night studying. I didn't know it was going to be this hard. But you have to do the work. You're not a pharmacist without your degree. I've had my share of bumps, but I've had amazing people to support me. I've danced professionally since high school, but I had to put that to the side. I did join the dance team at USP and I compete in tri-state and national competitions. It's a great pastime, but I had to put pharmacy first. That's where the maturity level comes into play.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your pharmacy career choice. When did your interest in the field of pharmacy start

It all started with my dad, the whole family used to help out with his work, and I have a lot of friends and family in the profession as well. I worked as a student pharmacist for two and a half years, and got to see how pharmacists work in clinical trials to determine if the drug works or doesn't work, and whether FDA will market. I also learned that the clinical trial is the first form of medical care some people in third-world countries receive. I was initially apprehensive about testing drugs on people, but that was without having knowledge or experience. I found that in phase three testing, the drugs are there to help and how oftentimes, such as with transplant medications, drugs in testing were the only means, a last resort type medication. It was interesting for me to see.

Right now I'm looking at the clinical pharmacy area, but in the long-run, I hope to own my own clinic overseas, in a country like Brazil, China or India. The U.S. has done a phenomenal job in helping managing peoples' healthcare status; while we still have room for improvements, a lot of other countries have nothing to improve on.

The concept of managing one's condition or disease state doesn't exist in many countries; the people only understand being treated. But when you manage cholesterol, diabetes or heart conditions, you are acting as a preventing force. It only takes one person to tell a patient, "You're going to die if you keep eating that way." With financial backing, I'd love to go abroad and open a clinic; it's a new use of a pharmacist that will be the wave here in the United States. Since I have peers doing it here, I feel I can go abroad.

What steps have you taken as a student to launch your career

I knew that I wanted to do an industry internship because of my father. Through the association, I landed two summer internships with Wyeth; the pay was great and so was the experience. I wanted to learn more about the clinical side, the full feel of what being a hands-on pharmacists incorporating patient care, which I wasn't getting in the classroom.

I wanted to find out more about clinical, one-one patient care. Through APhA-ASP, I learned more about policy and advocacy, the rules and regulations of states, regions and countries. Now I know better what avenue I want to go into. Being part of the diabetes research helped me with relating to patients as well as with policy and advocacy.

Also I'm taking finance classes on side, with the idea of managing the future income. That's important, when you have a $90,000 salary, that's a lot of money, I could easily spend it all shopping. I'm learning how to go about saving, about investments and how to consolidate my student loans.

How available are internships and other hands-on training experiences? Any tips for landing

Snoop around. More or less, if you want it, you can get it if you are determined. Basic opportunities are available at the retail and hospital levels, but if you want to try other avenues, the industry is competitive. For instance, for clinical, FDA internships you really need to have the go-getter spirit, find out requirements on what type of people qualify and how to get an in. If you join an association, you are going to meet a lot of pharmacists and make a lot of connections through your network you can use to your advantage. That's how I got my Wyeth internships. Each faculty member has a different avenue of pharmacy experience, and can push your interest, and may also be working in industry or research. Check with your teachers and your advisers.

What do you enjoy most about your hands-on experience so far

Meeting the people. It's very interesting to see the different types of people out there, from professionals to patients. I met a grandmother who has diabetes who raises her grandson; he knows how to check grandma's blood sugar and how to call 911 in case of an emergency. It's inspirational in a sense. I've met pharmacists who have gone beyond the traditional role of pharmacists. One pharmacist opened up a pharmacy for children with a child-level counter and communications specific to children.

Even my student peers have done some amazing things. One student from the University of Wisconsin got into policy advocacy and petitioned the state that student pharmacists be allowed to immunize; she got thousands of people to sign a petition and even stood before the state senate. One school was involved with a heartburn awareness challenge where students went to a construction site to talk about heartburn. That made complete sense. It's taking pharmacy to the streets, reaching out to the everyday patients. It makes me smile every day to meet new people, to learn innovative ways for the pharmacist to help patients.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future

This year my personal goal is to make sure people know the role of the pharmacist - we're trying to steer clear of the idea of the lick/stick/pour. Pharmacy has so many different facets. Our theme for APhA-ASP this year is diversity, not just cultural diversity in our patients, but also the diversity of the different facets to the profession.

Based on your experience as a student and as an active member of APhA-ASP, what are some of the trends that you see in the field of pharmacy which could help students plan for the future

The world of pharmacy is changing. Trends are more patient counseling and patient disease state management/medication therapy managements services; the concept is all about disease state management. The role of the pharmacist is now the medication expert.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the field of pharmacy

Because of the diversity of the profession, have an open mind. Pharmacy is what you make of it. It stops where you stop. If you have the drive, you can travel far.

Editor's Note: : Do you have further questions for Laura? Follow up with her!

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