From the classroom to clinical trials – Emma Stephens shares her experiences as an API trainee.


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Pictured above, a pharmacy student working with Dr. Pat Mayo

When fourth year Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) student Emma Stephens started a project with Dr. Pat Mayo, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (FoPPS), she looked forward to learning more about the applications of pharmacokinetics in drug development. What she did not expect was to work on a drug that was on the verge of a successful phase three clinical trial, do cutting edge science with cannabis industry giant, and much more.

As one of Applied Pharmaceutical Sciences’ (API) 17 trainees this year, Emma worked as a pharmacokinetic analyst on a number of drug development projects, conducting science that will be used to put drugs on the market while she gained real world industry experience.

Trainees in the API program include students from multiple disciplines and levels of education, from trades programs all the way to post-doctoral fellows. The core goal of the program is to cultivate the talent required to support a vibrant pharmaceutical industry.

The interdisciplinary team Emma worked with included API trainee, Morteza Hajihosseini, a biostatistician PhD student in the lab of Dr. Irina Dinu, API member and Associate Professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

Under the guidance of Dr. Pat Mayo and Dr. Micheal Guirguis at FoPPS, Emma completed a wide variety of tasks, from non-compartmental analysis of data for Aurinia Pharmaceuticals to pharmacokinetic reports for clients such as Aurora in the cannabis industry, all while completing the final year of her PharmD education from which she will graduate this spring.

While Emma was on her final site rotation, we asked her to share some insight about her experience working with API so far.

As a student, what was it like working on real world industry projects?

Emma: Dr. Mayo and Dr. Guirguis are two of the most incredible mentors. They’re so passionate about teaching and sharing their knowledge, and working with them has been a highlight of my pharmacy schooling. They have simultaneously challenged me and supported me, and ultimately given me the confidence to believe that I could pursue a career in industry if that is what I decide I want. Another great thing about being involved in a real setting as a student is that I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learned and the foundational skills I’ve built upon into my student placements and into direct patient care.

I’ve had an incredible experience working as a student intern with API. It has exposed me to an area of pharmacy practice that I had never considered pursuing.

What appealed to you the most about your experience as an API trainee?

Emma: When I started, there was already a precedent set that I would not know what to do, and that someone would have to teach me everything from start to finish. This allowed me to feel comfortable asking for help and to question anything that I did not understand. It’s been an ideal mix of direct supervision and teaching, as well as exposure to opportunities to work more independently and apply what I am learning in a real world setting.

This experience was the perfect opportunity to get an inside look at what really happens in industry and drug development, and let me decide if it is an area that I could see myself pursuing further.

What did you learn that stood out to you the most?

Emma: I learned that even a student can have a large impact on an industry project. Regardless of the amount of experience you have coming into a project, there is an opportunity for you to become the “expert” on specific areas of that project. You can have a real impact on how the data is interpreted and presented.

Did your experience with API change your perceptions of working in the “real world”?

Emma: I had preconceived notions that pursuing a career in industry meant that you had to come in with an extremely strong background in statistics, pharmacokinetics, clinical trial design, and more. I’ve learned that it is more about understanding the foundations of trial designs and the basics of pharmacokinetics – or the area that you are exploring – and that you’ll learn the details as you go. You just need to be ready to think critically, and not be afraid to ask questions about what you don’t understand.  

Did working on the projects change your perspective on what you might want to do once you graduate?

Emma: Absolutely. While I am still conflicted about what area of practice I want to jump into once I graduate, I now know that industry is an area that I want to explore more. I really enjoy that this career path allows me to help whole populations of patients at once, and that it challenges me to apply so many different areas of knowledge, such as pharmacokinetics, modeling, clinical practice, and more.