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Pharmacology Careers in South Africa

Published: 08 Jan 2018
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Current university applicants are at the interface of two generational cohorts: they are sufficiently old to relate to the values and entitled attitudes of generation Y millennials, but young enough to embrace the more socially conscious generation Z with their concerns for fairness, equity and justice. These digital natives inhabit a hybrid space between generations that hold divergent views on technology and ethics.

They move effortlessly between inter-generational camps and guard against potential crises of identity by being pragmatic and fluid, and developing a sense of global citizenship. As trailblazers of the generation Z university cohort, they are set to become the intellectual elite, likely to become opinion leaders and trendsetters amongst their peers, and take an active role in inducing social change.

Ironically, current tertiary-level students are not yet expected to take care of themselves. They are accustomed to being disempowered by nanny state interventions and unlimited parental involvement; it appears that generation X parents are still hovering to make decisions, seek opportunities and problem-solve for their adult children at university. Student loyalties between the old ways and the new are being tested. In the simmering South African #FeesMustFall movement, student activists demand that past apartheid-based inequalities be addressed as promised in the National Plan for Higher Education (2001) and that ‘free, quality, decolonised education’ be accessible to all.7 Interestingly, it is quietly argued that it is not them, but rather their previously disadvantaged and financially-stretched parents, who are being discriminated against. The rub is that many are desperate to provide a tertiary education for their children because it continues to represent upward social mobility and a higher earning potential. Graduate unemployment in South Africa is relatively low in relation to overall unemployment, which is officially estimated at 27.7%, with 32.2% of youth aged 15–24 years not in employment, education or training. University graduates remain the group with the best labour market prospects relative to other education cohorts. In South Africa, where approximately half the population of 56.5 million lives in poverty, and 13.8 million live in extreme poverty, tertiary education is seen as critical.

Against this complex and challenging South African socio-economic backdrop, a degree in pharmacology promises a heady mix of intellectually stimulating and exciting job opportunities, prospective wealth, cutting edge innovation, global travel and potential philanthropy. It is drug discovery in particular that tickles the altruistic. How many prospective pharmacology postgraduates can resist the lure of the Nobel Prize? It represents selflessness, social awareness, honour and prestige – all attributes that resonate with the Mandela-proud rainbow nation youth. It also comes with an 18 carat gold medal and a million US dollars.

Mindful of this vision, the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Pretoria offers a one year full-time postgraduate pre-clinical (basic) pharmacology honours degree track that focuses on scientific methodologies and pharmacology with primary emphasis on drug research and pre-clinical development. Practical sessions instruct students on the use of laboratory techniques and equipment as well as principles of science, as these form the basis of a research project; students write a research protocol, conduct the planned experiments, perform data analysis, interpret results, and compile a draft research article and presentation. Students gain experience in a wide range of modern experimental and analytical techniques while becoming increasingly aware that it is not all that easy to be Sir Alexander Fleming. Times have changed. Serendipity is rare. Money is tight. The fact that it was a joint effort (with Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Walter Florey) that led to the 1945 Nobel Prize-share in physiology or medicine may, however, rekindle the dream and help soothe the frustration of delayed gratification.

Institutional, local, national and international collaborations and further postgraduate study to PhD level undoubtedly expedite a career in drug discovery. On average, the department supports ten PhD, 20 MSc and 18 honours students at any given time. Being increasingly dependent on competitive external grants, the basic research thrust is towards underlying mechanistic components of several high-priority communicable and non-communicable disease areas in Africa, notably malaria, diabetes and cancer. Locally applicable and internationally relevant research is also conducted in Alzheimer’s disease, wound healing and inflammatory conditions, including infectious diseases and biofilms. Briefly, this encompasses methodological development, disease model optimisation, proteomic and bioinformatics-based intra and extracellular target identification and validation, in-silico and looking to nature (herbal remedies) ‘hit’ molecule identification, in-vitro and in-vivo screening and preclinical toxicology.

Although several South African universities are currently offering pharmacology lectureships with some non-clinical research opportunities, for all intents and purposes, the most direct route to the award ceremony in Stockholm is via North America or Europe, where numerous well-funded academic and research institutions are recruiting pharmacology post-docs for long-term positions in drug discovery. In addition, a move from academia to full-time senior research positions in the pharmaceutical industry is relatively straightforward with a few years of post-doctoral experience, although it is noted that some companies are currently recruiting scientists with a relevant bachelor’s degree. Thus, numerous realistic and sustainable career opportunities in drug research are available to South Africans with a pharmacology degree, although almost exclusively in the colder climes of the northern hemisphere. 

In contrast, local career opportunities for pharmacology graduates not interested in conducting research are plentiful. A brief perusal of contemporary South African recruitment sites reveals that the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries continuously seek pharmacology graduates for sales, medical marketing, medical scientific liaison, regulatory affairs and quality assurance positions. Pharmaceutical sales representatives (potentially leading to product and national key accounts management and other exciting marketing opportunities) and Clinical Research Associates (CRAs) are currently in high demand. In order to fill the latter industry gap, our specialised clinical pharmacology honours track students are expected to have an in-depth knowledge of the theoretical component of the postgraduate pharmacology course, as well as to show practical proficiency in all aspects of clinical trials including designing and writing a protocol, applying for ethics and regulatory authority approval, and initiating and conducting a clinical trial according to good clinical practice (GCP). Hands-on experience is gained at the Faculty of Health Sciences’ FDA-accredited Clinical Research Unit where phase II-IV Industry-sponsored trials are conducted in a variety of therapeutic areas, notably in HIV, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Not surprisingly, the local employment rate for these prospective CRAs by contract research organisations (a burgeoning industry in South Africa) and other pharmaceutical companies approximates 100%.

Meanwhile, our third specialised honours track, Regulatory Pharmacology, equips postgraduate students with theoretical and practical knowledge in regulatory affairs in South Africa’s modern day pharmaceutical environment, thus providing well-qualified candidates for this industry niche. Relevant and current research experience is strengthened by industry as well as Medicines Control Council (MCC) mentorship, relationships that clearly foster future employment.

The three pharmacology honours (BSc Hons Pharmacology) track graduates have an extensive knowledge of pharmacology and research methodologies in common, with scope for further MSc or PhD studies in any of the specialised areas. This increases their initial earning potential exponentially. Their versatility enables them to meet diverse job requirements in both academic and industry sectors, nationally and globally. This is important because it is an increasing proportion of this particular generation’s taxable income that will ultimately finance future South African university applicants. University fees are falling and the current generation Z cohort will almost certainly have to bridge the budgetary gap. The million-dollar prize money may well come in handy.

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About the author

Kim Outhoff

Kim is a Pharmaceutical Physician, Senior Lecturer and Clinical Pharmacologist. She studied medicine at the University of Cape Town, attaining her MBChB degree in 1991. She worked as a House Officer, General Practitioner and Senior House Officer in Namibia, Canada and the UK, respectively. She joined Guy’s Drug Research Unit, London, as a phase I and II Pharmaceutical Physician in 1997, and Organon Laboratories, Cambridge, as a Senior Medical Adviser in 1998 where she was part of the UK launch of the antidepressant, mirtazapine. During this time she attained her Dip.Pharm.Med (1999) from Cardiff University and became a Member (2002) and subsequently a Fellow (2012) of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine of the Royal College of Medicine (UK). She moved from the Pharmaceutical Industry to Academia as a Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology in 2007, and was registered as an Associate of the College of Clinical Pharmacologists of the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa in 2016. She teaches Pharmacotherapy to undergraduate and postgraduate Medical and Dentistry students, and coordinates the Master’s MPharmMed degree programme where she also supervises both clinical and non-clinical research projects. Her in-vitro and in-vivo doctoral research is on Her-2 positive breast cancer. The views expressed in this article are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department, Faculty, University or Government.

Vanessa Steenkamp

Vanessa is currently Head of Department of Pharmacology, University of Pretoria. She did her undergraduate and postgraduate studies up to Master level at University of Pretoria. She obtained her PhD in Clinical Biochemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her research interest focuses on traditional herbal remedies where she is involved in pre-clinical testing and development of new drugs, including toxicity testing. Vanessa is actively involved in postgraduate supervision. Amongst others, she is President of the South African Association of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology, Vice-President of the Toxicology Society of South Africa and serves as chair of the Clinical Toxicology Committee of the International Association of Therapeutic Drug Monitoring and Clinical Toxicology as well as member of the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry.