November 30, 2006
A conversation with Dean Sidney Nelson of the School of Pharmacy
Q: You’ve been dean of pharmacy for several years now. How long exactly?
A: For almost 12 years. I’m actually the senior dean on campus, in terms of seniority, anyway, and maybe in age, too, though I’m not sure about that.
Q: Are there special perks that come with that?
A: No special privileges. I think all it means is that I’m appointed to more committees — search committees and advisory committees, mostly.
I was chair of the searches for the new dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the new director of the Washington National Primate Research Center, and I’m still chairing the search for the new medical director of the Washington State Poison Center.
I’m also a member of the committee for the executive director of UW Medical Center — a search that has now been postponed. And, of course, I’ve been chair of the Board of Health Sciences Deans for the past five years.
Q: The School of Pharmacy celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1994. Of course pharmacy education has changed over those years, and there has been a significant change in the past decade with introduction of the Pharm.D. degree. Why the new degree and what has it meant for the school?
A: The Pharm.D. is a professional doctoral degree, in the same way that a professional dentistry degree is, or a professional medical degree. The leading pharmacy school in the nation, at the University of California, San Francisco, was really the driver of the effort to make the change from the bachelor of science in pharmacy, which was the earlier standard entry degree, to the Pharm.D. Nationally, in the early 1990s, the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy voted to mandate that change for all accredited pharmacy schools. It took several years to shift the programs, but this was complete by 2003. Students need to have a minimum of two years of undergraduate work before they come into the four-year professional program, but in fact many of our students, probably the majority now, have already completed bachelor’s degrees, or other degrees, before they enter the Pharm.D. program. One school, at the University of California at San Diego, is now requiring students to complete at least a bachelor’s degree before applying.
Q: Is that requirement likely to become more common?
A: I think it will become more common, but we’re not ready to move to that now. Many excellent students are coming with two years of pre-professional preparation, and I’d hate to lose those students.
Q: Why was the change made?
A: Medication therapy has become significantly more complicated than it ever was before. The number of medications has just mushroomed. For students to be able to understand these medications, and to be able to give information and advice to patients on medications, just takes more training. Managing complex drug therapy, with the potential for drug interactions and other problems, is something pharmacists now do regularly. Most people over 65 are taking several medications, so these are not unusual situations. Medicare will now reimburse pharmacists for medication therapy management for people taking more than a certain number of medications. Therefore students have a lot of complex information to learn about, and they also have to learn how to communicate well so they can work effectively with patients. Often, patients could benefit more from the expertise of pharmacists if they asked about medications or the reasons for instructions on taking medications. Even if it looks like a pharmacist is busy, that person will take time to educate you and talk with you if you ask.
Q: Pharmacists have moved into new roles, too, haven’t they?
A: That’s right. Some of these roles are very specialized, such as working with cancer patients who often receive several specialized drugs. Some of our students work for pharmaceutical companies; some are designing or running clinical trials; many work as part of health-care teams in hospitals. We also offer several certificate programs, such as Clinical Trials Management, Biomedical Regulatory Affairs, and Geriatric Pharmacy Practice, that are available to current students or to pharmacists who want to come back for more training.
Q: Do you still maintain a laboratory?
A: Oh, yes. My training and research has been in medicinal chemistry, which is one of our three departments. The other two are the departments of pharmaceutics and pharmacy. I was teaching and doing research in medicinal chemistry before I became dean and I still enjoy doing both those things. I did a post-doc at the National Institutes of Health in chemical toxicology and ever since I’ve been working primarily on mechanisms of drug toxicity — or understanding how drugs are causing unwanted effects and trying to find ways around that.
I’ve also done some synthesis of new drugs, a group that has been patented, for breast cancer. Most of the work I’ve done on toxicity has been on liver damage, so I’ve worked on acetaminophen, among others. There’s now an antidote available in emergency rooms for acute acetaminophen poisoning, and that antidote was developed based on some work I was involved in as a post-doc. That was a long time ago. Since then I’ve done some work trying to design an acetaminophen analog that wouldn’t have that problem, but unfortunately we couldn’t design a drug that was active enough therapeutically. The other area we work in is understanding the chemical structure of new drugs so that we can evaluate their possible toxicity and find ways to predict what problems they might cause — what we call “predictive toxicology.”
Q: And you also still teach?
A: I’m giving between 50 and 60 lectures a year, along with working with graduate students in the medicinal chemistry Ph.D. program. I teach one of the core courses in medicinal chemistry, an elective in diagnostic and clinical chemistry, and others depending on the quarter.
Q: That’s quite a work-out for someone who’s a dean and has a lot of other responsibilities on campus.
A: Well, it is. But when I took this job I told the faculty that I would need their support to maintain a lab and teach, as well as to be dean. I was really an “accidental” dean. I was on a search committee that identified candidates for the deanship who, for one reason or another, decided not to come. We wanted to name an interim dean, but then-president William Gerberding thought that we needed a dean who would commit to at least five years, since we were just beginning to implement our Pharm.D. program. And so, the next thing I knew, I was the new dean.
Q: The School of Pharmacy seems to have a particularly strong esprit de corps. Is there a reason for that?
A: We have a great group of students who are very active in regional and national organizations, in part because of an excellent group of advisors. If you look around our hallways, you will see some of the many awards our students have won for professional and community projects. We also have a very supportive and hard-working faculty and staff; our faculty members bring in more research grant dollars, per capita, than any other pharmacy school in the country and our staff are very committed to the school.
Furthermore, a very active alumni group provides us strong support. Many of them provide training opportunities for our students, and our alumni also have the highest participation rate of any UW school — not the most money — for donating back to the school. All those factors make being the dean fairly easy.
Q: Because I sometimes see you at the bus stop, I know you are a bus rider. Is that a regular thing for you?
A: Yes, I usually ride the bus at least three or four days a week. I live in South Everett and I don’t like to drive in heavy traffic, so it works well for me. Sometimes I need to drive in for an evening meeting or event, unless my wife picks me up because she is involved in the event.
Q: I can’t help noticing that there is a large stuffed penguin on the table here between us. Is that related to your work in some way?
A: Well, yes, it is. I have penguins all over, if you look around. Some are pictures; some are figurines. There’s an origami penguin and there’s a Husky penguin in a football outfit. Years ago, our lab was looking for a mascot. We chose the penguin because we saw them as elegant and humorous, cool under pressure – this was years before that March of the Penguins movie. And then people began giving me penguins of all kinds. I even have a certificate for adopting a zoo penguin!