Building resilience, juggling responsibilities: Meet four pharmacy students headed back to school this fall

Clockwise from top left: Jody Mugford, Hanie Yousefi, Eliza McColl and Michael Saikali.

As the new academic year begins, the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy spoke with students studying in its undergraduate (PharmD), graduate (PharmSci) and PharmD for Pharmacists programs.

In a year unlike any other, the faculty wanted to know: How are students planning to approach online learning, connect with their ‘Pharmacy phamily,’ and balance career, school, caretaking, and other responsibilities?

Meet four U of T pharmacy students who are overcoming challenges, building resilience and cultivating a memorable U of T experience:

Eliza McColl

PharmSci PhD candidate

What does back to school look like for you this fall?

My PhD is research-based and I’ve been working in the lab since mid-June after the COVID-19 shutdown, so back-to-school this fall doesn’t look much different from what I’ve been doing for the past few months.

There are some changes regarding how many people can be in the lab at once due to COVID-19, but other than that I will continue to complete my thesis research in the lab as usual. I will also be a TA, as I was in previous years, but the undergraduate pharmacy course I am supporting is online.

What are you most excited about?

I’m most excited about getting back to being a TA. I really enjoy the opportunity to interact with students in the PharmD program, gain teaching experience, and learn new material from the courses as I TA them, as I haven’t taken them before (they are reserved for PharmD students).

Why did you choose to study here?

The best part about being a grad student at LDFP (Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy) is that the department is relatively small. U of T is a huge school and I am used to smaller communities – I grew up in a small town in rural southwestern Ontario, and I completed my undergraduate degree at Trent University.

Making the change to U of T was intimidating due to its size, but the fact that the department of pharmaceutical sciences is relatively small helped me adjust and find more of a community within the university as a whole.

Despite its smaller size, our department has incredible resources for research, which is why I chose to study here. The equipment and expertise housed within our faculty is unparalleled which makes it a fantastic place to conduct research.

Is there anything that surprised you about the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy?

The thing that surprised me about LDFP after I started as a grad student here is the breadth of research being conducted in the faculty. Some people (myself included) tend to have a very narrow view of what “pharmaceutical sciences” encompasses, but LDFP really opened my eyes to how diverse this field is.

We have labs doing more typical pharmaceutical research such as drug discovery and clinical research, but we also have other labs conducting research in areas such as medical diagnostics, physiology, cell signaling, global health and bioethics. I wasn’t expecting to be exposed to so many different areas of research as a student.

What are your career plans and goals?

After graduating from my PhD, my career plan is to secure a post-doctoral fellowship to complete my training before seeking a position as a university professor with my own research lab. Ideally, this would allow me to pursue my passion for maternal-fetal health research.

Michael Saikali

PharmSci PhD candidate and PRiME fellow

What does back to school look like for you this fall?

Normally, my back to school is full of all the typical things like preparing for my classes, preparing to TA, buying new stationary that I will lose in a few days and preparing a calendar that I will obsessively use for maybe five weeks before I give up on it. Throw in meeting the new class of pharmacy students and the new grad students, undergrads and work-study students joining our lab – that is pretty much my fall.

This fall will obviously be different. I am entering the final stages of my degree, I have finished my course work and, of course, COVID-19. On the school side, I find myself relieved to not have to take any more courses, but thinking hard about how to be an effective TA online while preparing for a semester to remember.

What are you most excited about?

This year, I am most excited about a new project that I have started thanks to a PRiME fellowship I was awarded.

PRiME is a U of T-wide initiative that aims to bring together researchers from two different fields both working on precision medicine. My project aims to uncover new ligands for nuclear receptors involved in the gut-brain axis. To do this, I will be using a mass spectrometry-based assay that I developed in the Cummins Lab to identify where, when and how much of each nuclear receptor is present along the gut-brain axis.

I use that information to guide where and when to look for potential endogenous ligands using a new ligand identification approach developed by the Krause Lab in the Faculty of Medicine. This project will hopefully result in identifying new molecules that can serve as a basis for new therapeutics targeting nuclear receptors.

How do you plan on tackling the challenges associated with online learning?

Interestingly, I am finding myself on the other end of this challenge having finished my own coursework.

My favourite part of the fall is leading the PHM144 (Pharmacokinetics) workshops. I like the small class feel and being able to talk to the students. Not being able to meet the students in person this fall is disappointing, but I will still try to be as engaging online as I aim to be in person.

My biggest piece of advice for students this year is to use the resources that are available to you – for example TAs, forums, tutorials – and don’t let those lectures pile up!

Why did you choose to study here?

I started at the LDFP as an undergraduate student in the pharmaceutical chemistry specialist program. It was after joining the Cummins Lab to do my undergraduate thesis project when I realized that I was not done with this place and wanted more.

The graduate students were so welcoming and I saw a positive culture where the students all seemed to know each other and interact. I was learning a lot from the seminar series and I enjoyed how varied the topics were.

Is there anything that surprised you?

My biggest surprise was the amount of student-driven initiatives at this faculty. We have some super dedicated students here.

The Pharmaceutical Sciences Graduate Student Association and the Graduate Research in Progress (GRIP) committee provide much-needed graduate extra-curricular activities and events.

It truly is amazing that on top of all the academics, pharmacy students still make time to build up the LDFP community. This is something I found unique to LDFP, as it is made so much easier with the help of our donors and the Shaping Student Life and Learning fund.

Jody Mugford

PharmD for Pharmacists program

What does back to school look like for you this fall?

I am expecting this fall to be quite busy, both in my personal and academic life.  

I have two young daughters – one is seven years old and the other will be four years old this month.  My youngest is very medically complex and requires a lot of care, which can make my days unpredictable.  

To adjust my academic schedule due to a medical emergency we went through with her last year, I am taking one extra course this semester than previously planned. I also have recently resumed full-time work after an extended leave to take care of my daughter, so I'm adjusting to another type of busy.  

I'm looking forward to the courses this fall, and I will definitely not be bored.

What are you most excited about?

I love learning. I love the sense of accomplishment that comes from successfully completing a challenge and being empowered with new skills to further my career and professional goals. I have already seen so much benefit from this program in my professional life. My skills in caring for my patients have grown substantially and I love knowing that I am having a positive impact on their health. It is extremely rewarding.

I'm also very excited to connect with my classmates again. Even though we are separated by distance, I have made great friends through this program. We cheer each other on and motivate each other to keep going. They're an amazing group to learn with.

How do you plan on tackling the challenges associated with online learning?

My days are constantly evolving. One day my children could go to bed early, giving me hours to work on assignments and the next day, a stomach flu could hit or I could end up in the hospital with my youngest daughter, leaving no time to do any classwork. I have learned to never procrastinate. I try to have the bulk of my assignments done early because I never know what the next day will bring. I also try to not rely on weekends to catch up because, with small children, it rarely happens.

I plan out weekly goals and, to the best of my ability, try to schedule in free days to spend with my family and a buffer if projects take longer than expected. My husband and I share household responsibilities, but he generously carries extra load when school gets busy. I graciously accept babysitting and meal help from my in-laws and friends and, if we're being honest, I have been known to fly my mother in on occasion to help me get through finals. 

I haven't found the transition to online learning to be challenging, per se, except when my laptop died during the pandemic and nobody was open to fix it. I finished my undergrad in 2006, where very little learning was online, and wasn't sure how online learning would look, but the transition was quite easy.

I love the flexibility that online learning offers. You can start a lecture and pause it if you get pulled away and come back later. You can re-listen to lectures when reviewing material. I particularly love when courses will release large portions of their content all at once, allowing me to get ahead and giving me flexibility for unexpected illnesses or events.

Most professors are very responsive to questions by email or discussion board and they'll also arrange one-on-one phone or Blackboard chats. I have found them to be readily available and easy to access. 

The biggest lesson I have learned is to not hesitate to reach out. It helps so much when you develop relationships with your professors and can see that they really are in your corner, wanting you to succeed.

Why did you choose to study here?

I chose to do my PharmD program with U of T for a number of reasons. I wanted to do my second degree at a different university than my first so I could experience another school's methods. U of T's reputation as one of the top pharmacy schools in the world speaks for itself. Its call for excellence and passion to raise standards of health in this country are evident and completing my PharmD from such a well-respected institution means a lot to me.  

The program is also very flexible and can be tailored to my interests, which is important as a working professional with previous clinical experience. The program is challenging and motivating, and I am extremely proud of myself for what I have accomplished so far. I love being a part of this school. I respect the high expectations it has of its students, the support I receive and its belief that anyone, including me, who applies themselves can achieve their dreams.

Is there anything that surprised you about the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy?

U of T is much bigger than previous schools I have attended. I expected to be an unknown face amongst a crowd of students and for the relationships with faculty and professors to be distanced and challenging. Nothing could be further from the truth.  

I have felt so supported by the faculty and my professors. I have received so much understanding and willingness to help however possible, considering our unique circumstances with my daughter. I have nothing but the highest praise for how supported I have been in meeting my goals.

What are your career plans and goals?

We currently live in a remote area of Canada that offers amazing professional opportunities in a unique environment. For as long as I am here, I want to use my new skills to advance my practice to meet my community needs.  

In the future, if we leave the area, I would like to continue to practise in a hospital environment and this degree will assist in making that possible. I love hospital pharmacy and have long-term goals of becoming more specialized in a particular field of interest.

I have discovered a love for practice in infectious diseases and family practice. I also have strong interest in pediatrics and critical care and would love to grow more in those areas. To add to it, I have been told by one of my professors that I have a knack for organizational focuses like policy and procedure development. I am very open to furthering my education to assist in achieving these goals if it was feasible with my work and family life.

The PharmD for Pharmacists experience has been extremely challenging, but immensely rewarding. I feel like it is key to opening doors of opportunity in my career and I truly look forward to where this will take me.

Hanie Yousefi

Third-year PharmSci PhD student

What does back to school look like for you this fall?

With so many activities going online, back to school this year will be a totally different experience for me and I am looking forward to experience this as a new chapter in my life. I have started yoga and mindfulness practices over the past few months and I am going to continue supporting my body and mind during this new school year.

What are you most excited about?

I have been working on a Sars-CoV-2 diagnostics project since the recent pandemic. I am now very passionate about continuing my efforts on developing the final product and offering solutions to our society for attacking the current challenge.

How do you plan on tackling the challenges associated with online learning?

I am taking advantage of so many online platforms as the world is constantly shifting in the same direction. Initiatives such as online lab books, online classrooms and virtual meetings have created a strong infrastructure that made the transformation easier for me.

Moreover, online learning opens many doors to a larger variety of options for learning, which makes the whole process exciting. 

Why did you choose to study here?

I decided to join LDFP for its diverse and excellent research environment, as well as its access to a large variety of instruments and interdisciplinary collaborations.

As a chemical engineer by training, the best part of being a pharmaceutical sciences grad student at LDFP are the opportunities to perform multidisciplinary research. Taking advantage of my engineering background, I can propose solutions that contribute to people’s daily lives.

Is there anything that surprised you about LDFP after you started your graduate journey in the Faculty?

The close relationship between students and faculty members as mentors at LDFP surprised me. I have noticed that our mentors proactively take responsibilities to guide students in their journeys as a community, which inspires me to take similar leadership roles for our junior fellows.

What are your future career plans and goals?

By holding different roles in our faculty – such as my PhD research, teaching assistantship and being a member of our graduate association – I am preparing to be a professor and continue my research efforts to advance rapid and effective diagnostics.

This is an area that we’re increasingly seeing as needed in our connected society, and I enjoy leading groups of young fellows to enable them to find success in their scientific and personal lives.

Meet more Pharmacy students

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