Changing the next generation of pharmacists

Lauren Caldas, Pharm.D., BCACP (Pharm.D.’11/P), honed her commitment to community service as a student in the VCU School of Pharmacy, when she developed a healthy-living program for diabetics at her church. After residency, she helped patients manage their medications and save money at a Kroger Marketplace pharmacy. She now shares her expertise at VCU as an assistant pharmacy professor and at CrossOver Healthcare Ministry as a clinical pharmacist to Central Virginia’s underserved and uninsured.

Partners in practice: Pharm.D. grads mix skills to script successful careers

Diane and Tony Coniglio

By Julie Young

Diane Coniglio, Pharm.D. (Pharm.D.’87/P), and Tony Coniglio, Pharm.D. (Pharm.D.’86/P), met as undergraduate pharmacy students at the University of Rhode Island. They married in 1983 and moved to Richmond, Virginia, where VCU School of Pharmacy’s graduate program focused their careers, provide a lifelong network of colleagues and friends and cement their union as a married couple and business partners.

Tony entered the Pharm.D. program in 1984 and Diane in 1985. Through what Tony calls “quirky good fortune,” their years in Richmond were idyllic.

The Coniglios’ rented cottage in Richmond

While pursuing their degrees, the couple rented a tiny mother-in-law cottage behind a Riverside Drive home. For $50 a month, they had a home within steps of the James River near the Huguenot Bridge.

“It allowed us to go to school together” rather than taking turns, Tony says, “because we didn’t need to take out loans and could afford to live working weekends in the hospital pharmacy.”

Tony accepted a fellowship for a year while waiting for Diane to graduate. In spring 1987, they moved to New Jersey, where they chose to practice in a nontraditional sense. Tony debated between academia and the pharmaceutical industry, eventually choosing business. Diane became a medical writer and editor at a small medical communications firm.

VCU exposed Diane to career options she had never considered. “Before coming to VCU, I had no idea that drug information existed as a potential career,” she says. “I came upon it when I did my general hospital residency. It was a rotation. I only got to spend a month there, but I just loved it. When time came to graduate from the Pharm.D. program, it was the only type of job I was looking for — a hospital, large drug information center or small medical communications firm, which is where I ended up and loved what I did there. I guess for me, the bottom line is VCU opened my eyes to a new career path, and it’s what I’ve been doing since I left Virginia.”

Tony says he was fortunate to work in numerous pharma jobs, from roles in medical affairs, product development, strategic commercial, business development and licensing. He credits VCU with giving him the academic foundation and strong relationships needed to be successful. “We had only eight students per class, tremendous mentors and role models,” he says.

After three years of working from home while rearing a daughter, Diane opened a business, Opus Medical Communications to provide medical writing and editing services for patient education materials and drug sales training literature. “I decided with my husband’s support to go off on my own,” she says. “I got my first freelance writing assignment from another VCU Pharm.D. graduate.”

In 2008, Tony joined Diane’s business. Their complementary skill sets — his strategic commercial experience and her writing and editing — made the venture successful.

“Fortunately, we’ve been healthy busy for the last 10 years,” Tony says. “It’s all been word of mouth. We’ve been very lucky.”

Tony’s photography

In his spare time, Tony honed his skills as a portrait and landscape photographer and opened a professional studio in his home. He shoots mostly for friends and colleagues, charging no fee but requesting a charitable donation.

Tony has maintained strong bonds with VCU. At a post-baccalaureate Pharm.D. reunion in Richmond, he and his colleague Gene Cefali, Pharm.D. (Pharm.D./Ph.D.’87/P), rallied fellow alumni to host a dinner for pharmacy professor William Garnett, Pharm.D. (B.S.’69/P), the students’ mentor and close friend. From these events came the idea of a scholarship to honor Garnett’s 36-year legacy at the school. Coniglio, Cefali and William Fitzsimmons, Pharm.D. (Pharm.D.’85/P), challenged alumni to contribute; within days, enough money had been pledged to establish the William Garnett Scholarship Fund.

Tony also just completed a seven-year stint as a member of the School of Pharmacy’s Pharmaceutical Sciences Graduate Advisory Board. He has mentored students and given talks on alternative career paths in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I tried to really emphasize to students that there are a lot of very interesting challenges and potentially very fulfilling roles in the pharma industry,” he says. “You can name almost any job — scientific, clinical, regulatory, and commercial — that Pharm.D.s and Ph.D.s are successfully performing within the pharma industry. Retail and hospital pharmacy will always be a very strong consideration for any student and these venues offer excellent careers. The pharma industry represents another pathway, and is a tremendous opportunity for people who want to do something different. And VCU has always and continues to have a very strong program that positions students well for any career path.”

Pharmacy professor named first da Vinci Center Faculty Fellow

Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D.

Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’08/M),  wants to go beyond standard science.

“People like to say, ‘I’m doing arts, I’m doing science.’ No, no, no,” he said. “You are both doing art. It’s creating something brand new with the tools that you have. It’s art that’s based on a logical process, that’s true. But it’s creativity at its heart.”

The assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Pharmacy is the first da Vinci Center Faculty Fellow. Wijesinghe’s commitment to collaboration across disciplines brought him to Garret Westlake, the center’s director.

“He actually reached out to me,” said Westlake. “I think it was my first week at VCU, and he said, ‘I would like to be more involved with the da Vinci Center, I wanted to get your ideas about where you see the center going in the future.’”

The faculty fellowship’s purpose is to highlight VCU faculty who champion cross disciplinary collaboration and innovation. Wijesinghe saw an opportunity to bring pharmacy and da Vinci students together to inspire entrepreneurship and creative thinking. He sees collaboration between the two as a ripe opportunity for student startups.

“Thinking outside the box, bringing the right people together and getting things done. That’s pretty much what we are trying to do here,” Wijesinghe said.

Wijesinghe recently sat down for an interview to discuss his roots as a scientist, and what intrigues him about the future.

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VCU researchers receive $2.1 million grant to investigate genetic markers for schizophrenia

The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded a $2.1 million grant to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine to study potential epigenetic causes of schizophrenia.

The purpose of the four-year grant is to study DNA methylation as it relates to the development of schizophrenia. Methylation is a process that involves small changes to DNA that can be inherited or be the result of environmental factors such as smoking, dietary habits and medical treatment.

“DNA methylation changes over time,” said principal investigator Karolina Aberg, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine and assistant professor at VCU School of Pharmacy. “Age is one aspect that changes methylation patterns, but habits like what you eat and drink and how much you exercise can also have an effect.”

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Doctoral student inspires as researcher and mentor

Lauren Griggs.

Lauren Griggs.

The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, which provides support and opportunities for underrepresented students in STEM disciplines at VCU, offers a summer transition program for incoming freshmen students. The six-week program, which features structured online and face-to-face programming, prepares students academically and socially, connecting them with peers and mentors before the first day of class.

At the conclusion of the program last summer, Lauren Griggs (Pharm.D’16/P), program director of LSMAP, arranged for the approximately 40 participating students to stand in a circle. She then had the students, one by one, speak about what they would most take with them from their summer experience. Many of the students talked about the power of meeting each other and beginning to feel like they were part of a family at VCU. As the students spoke, they exchanged a ball of yarn. Each student held onto a piece of the thread as the ball was passed randomly within the group. By the end, the thread was interwoven throughout the circle, forming a striking purple web.

Griggs, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, then told the group, “This web shows all of the connections that we have created together. Think of this web as a support net for you from now on. We are all here to support each other.”

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At VCU Broad Street Mile, ‘a great way to build connections’

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The Broad Street Mile allows participants to support local charities by running in a 5K or several 1-mile fun runs.

Running is part of Joseph DiPiro’s morning routine. The dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy is typically on the road around 6 a.m., logging his daily miles — 4-5 on weekdays, 8-10 on the weekends.

DiPiro tries to run five days a week as part of his fitness regimen. But he also sees running as a way to build community.

“I’m really impressed by the social nature of running,” DiPiro said. “If we make a commitment to meet up on a Saturday morning, then that’s always going to be a higher-quality run. We’ll run maybe a little bit faster, a little bit farther. And you have more time to talk to people — when do you get an hour just to explore the world’s issues these days?

“It covers a lot of ground — the social, the health, the physical part of it.”

DiPiro is one of 577 runners already signed up for the Sept. 24 VCU Broad Street Mile — the annual fall street festival and road race held on the Monroe Park Campus. The run this year is part of a series of events launching the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, a comprehensive fundraising campaign with three priorities — people, innovations and environments. The campaign aims to touch every aspect of VCU: students, alumni, faculty and staff, patients, caregivers, researchers, schools, libraries, centers and institutes, athletics, and the community.

‘Beat the dean’

DiPiro is bringing his social philosophy to the race this year by issuing a “beat the dean” philanthropic challenge to pharmacy school students, faculty and staff participating in the 5K run. All proceeds from DiPiro’s challenge support the School of Pharmacy scholarship fund.

“It’s pretty simple: If I beat them they have to put up $5; if they beat me I have to put up $10,” DiPiro said.

The challenge is an initiative of the school’s Student Philanthropists Alumni Network, a new group formed to raise awareness of philanthropy among current pharmacy students. The school awarded $623,650 in scholarships to 183 students during the last fiscal year.

The Broad Street Mile, now in its fourth year, doubles as a fundraiser for local organizations. VCU announced in July that, in an effort to expand community impact, this year’s event does not require participating groups to have a 501(c)3 designation. Several university offices and schools, including the Grace E. Harris Leadership InstituteVCU ASPiRE and the School of Pharmacy, are participating as fundraising organizations in the Broad Street Mile for the first time as a result of this change.

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Scholarship provides financial and moral support to students researching cures for neurological diseases

John Saathoff should never have received the Lowenthal Award in 2014.

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy had already chosen Kavita Iyer, who was then, like Saathoff, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry, to receive the award, which was established in 2000 by Hilda Meth, Ed.D.

Saathoff applied late, but he was permitted an interview. He so impressed Meth, who met with the finalist, that she created a second award that year, though not before putting Saathoff through his paces.

“John had a lot of fire, but he is not a bookworm,” Meth said, an assertion Saathoff, whose research is in Alzheimer’s disease, readily agrees with. The committee set a requirement that he increase his GPA from 3.0 to 3.25.

“I have never been one of those people who sell themselves, I guess,” Saathoff said. “I was a little hesitant to apply for the award; I figured I wouldn’t get it.”

But, buoyed by Meth’s interest in him, Saathoff worked hard and exceeded the GPA goal.

“She wants you to succeed, and she looks out for you,” he said. “It’s a nurturing relationship.”

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Family ties lead to VCU, and love, for alumni

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Catherine and Edward Cary

By Anthony Langley

A huge snowstorm hit Richmond, Virginia, in November 1987, blanketing the city and causing nearly everything to shut down, including Virginia Commonwealth University. If it weren’t for that snowfall, Catherine (B.S.’89/P; Pharm.D.’95/P) and Edward (B.S.’88/P) Cary might have never met.

“There had to be 20 inches of snow, and everyone who lived in the dorms was outside playing in it,” Edward says. “That was the first time I met her, and here we are today.”

They can also credit their families for bringing them to VCU. Edward’s sister, Carol Boswell (B.S.’79/N), and her husband, Peter Boswell (B.S.’76/H&S; M.H.A.’87/AHP), both matriculated at the university. Carol, who worked as a registered nurse at MCV Hospitals, encouraged Edward to apply to VCU, and it was through her recommendation that he chose to study pharmacy.

“She interacted with pharmacists in her day-to-day,” says Edward, who started out as a biology major on a pre-dental track. “She thought it would be a cool career, but told me I should try it out before making a decision.”

During his freshman year at VCU Edward accepted an unpaid position as a pharmacy technician at Johnston-Willis Hospital in Richmond, which piqued his interest in the field. A subsequent aptitude test revealed that his personality was perfectly suited for pharmacy. It was the final sign. He changed his major and never looked back.

“Without Carol’s recommendation, I’d probably be doing something else,” says Edward, staff pharmacist for the Mechanicsville, Virginia, Martin’s location. “I really credit her for my career in pharmacy.”

This fall he’s stepping back from his 30-year career as a pharmacist to pursue another interest: cooking. He’ll be taking classes part time at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College to earn a degree in culinary arts with plans to eventually become a chef. “I’ve always loved being a pharmacist, but I’ve always had a passion for cooking,” he says.

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Portrait of Daniel Herbert that hangs at Bremo Pharmacy

Like Edward, Catherine also has a sister, Michelle Thomas (B.S.’90/P), who attended VCU, and both women followed in the footsteps of their father, Daniel Herbert (B.S.’66/P). Daniel founded Richmond’s Bremo Pharmacy in 1976 and served as president of the American Pharmacists Association until his passing in 2004.

Catherine grew up working in her dad’s pharmacy and ran cross-country in high school, so when it was time to choose a college, VCU was the perfect fit. It supported a cross-country team, and at the time, was the only pharmacy school in Virginia.

“It was a natural choice for me,” Catherine says. “VCU had everything I was looking for. I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

Today, as president of Bremo Pharmacies, she oversees all three Bremo Pharmacy locations, continuing to build on the work that her father started nearly 40 years before.

Edward and Catherine both credit VCU for giving them the opportunities they have and joined VCU Alumni as Life members to give back to the university that provided them so much.

“The two of us have a real legacy here,” Catherine says. “This is where Bremo started, and if Ed’s sister had never come to the university, we may have never met all those years later. We owe VCU for our careers, and for each other.”

VCU opens rare university-based sterile compounding pharmacy

Students prepare an antibiotic to demonstrate the capabilities of the new Center for Compounding Practice and Research space.

Students prepare an antibiotic to demonstrate the capabilities of the new Center for Compounding Practice and Research space.

At the ribbon-cutting for Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy’s Center for Compounding Practice and Research, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., spoke to the room of faculty, staff, students and state legislators about the university’s innovative approach to education.

“We are trendsetters,” Rao said. “We have to be ahead of the change so that others who are behind us can follow.”

On Friday, VCU celebrated the opening of the sterile medication compounding facility. The academic pharmacy is one of only a handful of its kind in the country.

“Completion of this center puts us at the forefront of schools of pharmacy around the country in terms of compounding training,” said Joseph T. Dipiro, Pharm.D., dean of the VCU School of Pharmacy. “It will propel VCU to become a regional and national training center for pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, industry personnel and pharmaceutical regulators.”

Pharmacy compounding is the art and science of preparing personalized medications for patients. Compounded medications are made based on a practitioner’s prescription in which individual ingredients are mixed together in the exact strength and dosage form required by the patient. At one time, nearly all prescriptions were compounded, but with the advent of mass drug manufacturing in the 1950s and ‘60s, compounding rapidly declined and most pharmacists were no longer trained on how to compound medications. Compounding has thus become a specialization and, while many pharmacy schools still teach it, it is often reduced to a few lessons.

“Specialized medications, patient-specific medications and drug shortages have led to an increase in our need to be able to compound medications,” said Barbara Exum, Pharm.D., director of the new center. “This increase has led to the need to educate our pharmacists and give them advanced training in safely compounding medication for our patients.”

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VCU names director of newly established Center for Compounding Practice and Research

Barbara Exum, Pharm.D.

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy will soon welcome Barbara Exum, Pharm.D. (B.S.’82/P; Pharm.D.’86/P), as director of the newly established Center for Compounding Practice and Research. The compounding pharmacy, which is located on the fifth floor of the Robert Blackwell Smith Building, has been in operation since early this year. A grand opening celebration is set for June 10 from 11 a.m. to noon.

“VCU is on the cutting edge as we open our state-of-the-art sterile medication compounding facility,” Exum said of the academic pharmacy that is one of only a few of its kind in the country. “Now that we have an operationally compliant cleanroom environment, we can better provide to our students hands-on training as well as education concerning the required equipment and regulatory standards governing sterile and nonsterile compounding.”

Pharmacy compounding is the art and science of preparing personalized medications for patients. Compounded medications are made based on a practitioner’s prescription in which individual ingredients are mixed together in the exact strength and dosage form required by the patient. At one time, nearly all prescriptions were compounded, but with the advent of mass drug manufacturing in the 1950s and ‘60s, compounding rapidly declined and most pharmacists were no longer trained on how to compound medications. Compounding has thus become a specialization and, while many pharmacy schools still teach it, it is often reduced to a few lessons.

“There is a great need for training in sterile pharmaceutical compounding,” said Joseph T. DiPiro, Pharm.D., dean of the VCU School of Pharmacy. “The new compounding pharmacy will propel VCU to become a regional and national training center for pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, industry personnel and pharmaceutical regulators. It is a great opportunity for our school to be a national leader in this area.”

Exum brings more than 30 years of experience to the position, having most recently served as senior vice president of clinical services at BioScrip, which is a publicly traded home-infusion therapy company.

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