Professional Advice / Opinions:

Student Pharmacist Star of the Month: Michelle Pernice

By: Marie Huang

Each month, the Rho Chi Post has the wonderful opportunity to sit down with an inspiring leader among the student pharmacists here at St. John’s University College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions – someone who is not afraid to stand apart from the crowd and can be the change he or she wants to see in the world.  This April, Michelle Pernice, a 6th year PharmD candidate and student chapter advisor of the Drug Information Association, speaks to us about the pharmaceutical industry, graduation, and seafood.

Q: Some of your colleagues have said that you are one of the most involved students in your year.  We are curious to know the specifics; what are some organizations and projects you are directly involved in?  Please tell us more about them!
A: I would not call myself one of the most involved.  I could think of a number of students more involved than myself.  Many students are incredibly involved, not only in multiple professional student organizations, but also on the e-board of these organizations.  I look up to these students.  Any involvement I have had at St. John’s University College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions comes down to an initial relationship I built with Dr. Serajuddin (from my first Pharmaceutics class in the pharmacy program).  We began researching pertinent topics in the pharmaceutical industry together, building ideas of problems and solutions.  Through our collaboration, I was able to meet various people in the college that would help guide me into the career I am looking for in the pharmaceutical industry.  Most notably, Patricia Nolan, from the Alumni Affairs office, had the ability to connect students with unique career goals with the appropriate, prominent alumni.  This was exactly what she did for me – she led me to branch off into the projects and relationships I mention here and more.

I have been involved throughout pharmacy school in various professional organizations, some student chapters within the college, and others that were not.  One of the first groups that I was involved in was APhA.  I was fortunate enough to act as the fundraising chairperson on the executive board from 2009 to 2010.  It was a great learning experience.  I still recall lessons that I learned during that time, including how to work with a group of people with different backgrounds than myself on a subject; here, it was fundraising.  I came from a large-scale, big-picture fundraising group, and worked with a group of people who had greater time and energy restrictions than I was accustomed to.  It was good practice in compromise and learning how to communicate different ideas.

Outside of the professional organizations at our college, I immersed myself more fully in groups as the years went on.  PSSNY has been a great organization to me; they have very accessible annual meetings and conventions.  This past January, I had the opportunity to present at a Continuing Education (CE) meeting on Risk Evaluation Mitigation Strategies (REMS) at their Mid-Winter meeting in Albany!  Most importantly, I became involved in the Drug Information Association (DIA) two years ago.  As I developed the strong conviction to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry, I realized that I wanted to align myself with this organization.  Since my initial attendance of their annual convention in June of 2010, I have published an abstract in their Drug Information Journal, an editorial piece in their Global Forum publication, presented as a student poster presenter at the 2011 annual meeting, and started a DIA Student Chapter at our college.  My involvement with DIA was the single best thing I did for my career, thus far.  Through a series of events, I gained experience working at FDA and Amgen, as well as my impending fellowship with Novartis.

Q: Wow!  That is impressive!  It seems like working closely with Dr. Serajuddin during your third year made all the difference in that it led and allowed you to explore your options relatively early.  Did you already have a strong interest in the pharmaceutical industry?  How did you come to the point where you said to yourself, “I’ve found my niche – is this what I want to do after graduation?”
A: Coming into pharmacy school, I did not know that I wanted to pursue a career in the industry.  No particular avenue bought my full attention.  Throughout my classes, I would continually hear that I was overanalyzing concepts – “thinking too far into it.”  I soon had the perpetual feeling that I was a law student in pharmacy school.  This was when I decided to combine the two disciplines and pursue a career in the industry.  I developed this more as the years went on, particularly to hone into regulatory affairs (after researching different options and seeing which suited my strengths the best).

Q: Let us focus more about the Drug Information Association.  The first time I have heard about the DIA was actually when I received an e-mail our college’s administration regarding an upcoming meeting.  What is the importance of DIA, and what is its mission?  In addition, as chapter advisor, what do you hope to accomplish?
A: The DIA Student Chapter is a brand new initiative at St. John’s University College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions.  DIA is a non-profit organization that serves to bring together all facets of the pharmaceutical industry (from the private sector to patient advocate groups, government agencies to stakeholder groups) to share ideas and work together towards the betterment of public health.  Chartering student chapters is also a new initiative for DIA, as we are only the sixth one in the country.

My personal involvement with DIA on the national level was incredibly influential for my career.  I feel very strongly about sharing what I have gained from the organization with current students interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry.  The chapter has been wildly successful, with over 100 members already!  As chapter advisor, my goal is simple: I want to help students in the way that so many people have helped me, but only in a more accessible way.

DIA is fortunate to have Dr. Patel co-advising the student chapter.  She is a great resource, as she is also a faculty member with hands in both, clinical and industry careers.  Michael Cronin is a motivated fourth-year PharmD candidate and the first chapter president of DIA.  He has been working diligently toward a successful launch of the chapter.

Q: I see here that informing student members of “opportunities that exist within the pharmaceutical industry to better serve public health needs” is one of the chapter goals.  Pharmacy seems to be a commonly overlooked aspect of public health.  What is the role of a pharmacist and the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in public health?
A: The betterment of public health is really the end goal of every decision made in the pharmaceutical industry.  In the public, some may not see this motivation so clearly, but it truly is what every facet of the industry strives to achieve (whether it be a dramatic improvement in a dire health need in an underdeveloped country or an incremental improvement in an expensive cancer therapy focused in the more fortunate countries).  All of these contributions to health are affecting public health in one way or another.  Pharmacists have the capacity to influence public health in a positive way in any way they desire, really.  From joining an effort like “Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases” to taking on a career developing an innovative new orphan drug therapy, if you, as a pharmacist, want to make a public health impact, you will.

Q: Of all of the APPE rotations that you have had, which one has been the most rewarding and why?
A: I am being genuine when I say that every single rotation I had been extremely rewarding in a unique way.  If you challenge yourself to make the most of every opportunity, you will receive rewards.

My first rotation was with Dr. Ezzo at Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LIJMC), a fantastic learning experience.  I learned so much about building SOAP notes and patient care in primary disease states.  Dr.  See at Beth Israel in Family Medicine was also such an important experience.  I learned how to prioritize patients’ complex profiles, a life lesson.  Dr.  See would politely say, “You have a very wide differential,” her nice way of saying, “You’re crazy, get your head out of the sticks, and look at the whole forest for once!” Dr.  El-Chaar at LIJMC in Pediatrics was a turning point in my life, as a whole.  I always had this inner battle between an industry career and specializing in pediatrics.  Ultimately, I chose industry but my focus has (and hopefully always will be) underrepresented diseases and pediatrics.  I also have this crazy idea that I will get a per diem position working with cystic fibrosis in some capacity.

Of course, the FDA rotation at Office of Special Health Issues made a huge impact on my career.  The amount of incredible people I met there and learned from was overwhelming.  The time spent at Pfizer working in Medical Communications was an enriched experience.  The preceptors there allowed for a lot of flexibility for me to expand on all of my ambitious ideas, including focusing my final project on personalized medicine and their new product, crizotinib (Xalkori®).  Finally, my last rotation at Town Total Health conducting MTMs turned into my site for my ongoing research project.

Q: How does it feel being so close to graduation and your PharmD?  Do you have any regrets of the past or any great plans mapped out for the future?
A: Imminent graduation is surreal.  Six years went by quickly, but it also feels like I have been in the program for my entire life, especially because so much has changed.  As a rule, I have no regrets.  There are endless lessons learned and to learn in the future, though.  I am constantly setting short- and long-term goals; I feel that this is the only way I can accomplish anything.

In July, I begin a fellowship with Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, through the Rutgers Post-Doctoral Industry Fellowship Program in Drug Regulatory Affairs, with foci on autoimmune disorders, infectious diseases, and transplant.  I am excited for the opportunity to learn, and hope to make an impact during my short, two-year tenure.

I also received an appointment as the new practitioner member on the Public Policy Council for ASHP.  I really enjoy sinking my teeth into prominent issues that affect patient care on the large scale (e.g. biosimilars, drug shortages, and patient medication information).  The idea that I may be a part of a decision-making team pertaining to these issues in the next year is mind-blowing.

Q: So, now, moving away from pharmacy and onto questions that are more “vital”: if you had to give up either pasta or seafood, which would it be?
A: I am a vegetarian, actually!  Well, technically, I am a “pescetarian” because I keep seafood in my diet.  If I had to choose between pasta and seafood, I would be a bad vegetarian and choose seafood.  I guess it subconsciously stems from my inner fear of pernicious anemia (my last name is a major risk factor).

Q: [Laughs] Great answer!  Would you rather forget who you were or who everyone else was?
A: The latter – so much time and energy goes into cultivating oneself.  The vast majority of those efforts include the influences that other people had and will have on me.  If I forgot who I was, I would in essence forget what everyone else really meant to me, as well.  If I forget who everyone else is, I still carry them and their influence with me (in terms of how I act and what decisions I make).  Some people have had such a profound impact on my life that I really could not conceive the idea of forgetting them, even if I had no memory.  While that sounds nonsensical, their involvement in my life dominates my actions, and I think that is beyond a memory relationship.

Q: A very articulate response and I completely agree!  Finally yet importantly, if you could choose someone famous, alive or dead, to have an hour conversation with, whom would it be?
A: I have a warped sense of fame; so, this response may be a bit unconventional.  Recently listed as one of the 25 Most Influential People in Biopharma today by FierceBiotech, Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, is an example of a person who fits my definition of “famous.”  A conversation with her would be invaluable.  My interest was first piqued when a friend sent me a New York Times profile on Dr. Desmond-Hellmann.  It is easy to admire her influence on the industry and courage to blaze a new trial in the public-private partnership arena.  What I would hope to truly gain out of the conversation, though, is not intricate industry wisdom.  Instead, I would like to observe for myself the dichotomy often used in her descriptions.  Just the idea that she succeeds in this harsh industry (by acting with kindness, while commanding action) is my highest aspiration.

Q: Thank you so much for taking the time to have this interview!  Do you have any last words or tidbits of advice for your fellow student pharmacists?
A: Breathe in deeply, and hold your breath for a moment, appreciating that you can.  Then, realize, in exhaling, that you have the potential to blow everyone away.

If you have any additional questions for Ms. Pernice, you may contact her at [email protected]

Published by Rho Chi Post
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