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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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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Utilizing resources: Pharmacy professor secures four grants to pursue his research aims

When asked what inspired him to pursue a career in research, Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., associate professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, lightheartedly admits he was always “one of those guys” who enjoyed math and science from a very young age. As he matured in his pursuit of a deeper understanding of biochemistry, he saw pharmacy as a field that would allow him to combine his passion for chemistry and helping people.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Van Tassell completed his postgraduate residency and fellowship before setting his eyes on VCU.

“VCU really felt like the best fit for me,” Van Tassell said. “The university’s resources and infrastructure were phenomenal, but it was equally important to me that I match well with the people. VCU had the right group of passionate people who were excited and invested in the work they did.”

Van Tassell joined VCU in 2008 as an assistant professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy. He had no way of knowing at that time that in just two years the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research would develop a KL2 program that would lead him down the path of earning three National Institutes of Health grants (grant numbers: 1R34HL117026, 1R34HL118348 and 1R34HL121402) in addition to a grant from the American Heart Association (grant number 13BGIA16120001).

The VCU CCTR’s KL2 (formerly known as K12) scholar program provides substantial salary support and $25,000 in startup funds for faculty-level clinical and translational scientists near the beginning of their investigative careers. KL2 scholars are initially appointed for two years as the scholar works toward receiving his or her own independent mentored career development award (e.g., NIH K08 or K23) or independent NIH operating grant (e.g., R01).

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Behind the music

Monty (left) and Andrew Kier

Professor and son pen VCU’s first alma mater

By Anthony Langley

A year and a half ago, Lemont “Monty” B. Kier, Ph.D., began reflecting on his time and experiences at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I’ve been here since 1977,” says Kier, who has taught and held various roles in VCU Life Sciences’ Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, the School of Allied Health Professions Department of Nurse Anesthesia, and the School of Pharmacy departments of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science and Medicinal Chemistry, the latter of which he served as chair for 10 years. “I’m so fond of the diversity and the opportunities that I’ve had here I began to write a little poem about it.”

As he started writing, Kier learned that VCU did not have an alma mater, which prompted him to take his poem and transform it into “We Gather Here,” the university’s new, official anthem. The song celebrates the values and memories Kier believes that each and every student makes while at VCU.

“When you walk around the campus, there are people from all around the world,” he says. “The opening verse tells you what our colors mean: diversity and value.”

Upon completing the lyrics, he brought them to his son, Andrew Kier (B.M.’90/A), who took his father’s words and sketched out a rough melody on paper, adding in chords to fill in spaces where needed. About a week later, he loaded the finished music into a software program that helped him finalize the musical arrangement.

“I think it will draw people together,” says Andrew Kier. “It’s a great honor to have it chosen as the alma mater, and I’m proud to be connected to VCU in this additional way.”

While the father-and-son duo were working on the song, Monty Kier shared a draft with Gordon McDougall, associate vice president for university alumni relations, who in turn shared it with VCU’s leaders.

“The university asked the VCU Alumni board of governors to adopt ‘We Gather Here,’” McDougall says. “I’m proud of what Monty and his son accomplished. It’s a great moment for the university.”

In March, the board approved “We Gather Here” as VCU’s official alma mater. Kier is excited to see what comes next for the song and its impact on the university.

“It tells a story about how good it is here. There’s a wonderful spirit that surrounds everyone at VCU,” he says. “Making this contribution is one of the highlights of my career.”

– Anthony Langley is a VCU senior majoring in mass communications.


 “We Gather Here”

Lyrics: Monty Kier
Music: Andrew Kier

We gather here, our voices raise, of VCU we sing our praise, the Black and Gold our colors show, diversity and value grow. We’ve learned so much beyond each class, the joy of friendship will not pass.

So much in life is mem’ry borne, of VCU they’ll not be shorn.

The mem’ries of a campus walk, so many friends, we stop to talk, the friendships here were made to last, they’re in our minds though years have passed. The seasons pass, the years roll by, from VCU the reason’s why we are enriched from values learned, they bring us joy that we have earned.

Next year again we will be here to see our school and give a cheer. So VCU keep all that is great, you’ve brought us joy that is our fate. So come let us sing of VCU, with ev’ry verse we will renew the mem’ries from our campus time, each one embedded in a rhyme.

Listen to the alma mater.