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Showcasing the vibrant undergraduate pharmacology community at the William Harvey Research Institute

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Published: 12 May 2022

In 2015, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) launched a BSc degree in Pharmacology and Innovative Therapeutics. It received three consecutively high NSS scores including 100% for overall satisfaction in the 2020 NSS and is currently placed at number one in the UK. The course has an innovative curriculum focussing on the current and potential future skills gap, as identified by the Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry. Back then, it was a new undergraduate pharmacology degree for a UK institution and the first undergraduate degree to be offered by the William Harvey Research Institute (WHRI). I direct the programme which aims to give students a strong foundation in biomedical science, medicine, and molecular and clinical pharmacology. Students normally complete their degree in three or four years with an extra year abroad or in industry. As QMUL has strong links with industry, this offers a stimulating and supporting learning experience. Final-year students complete an investigative research project, assessed with a detailed dissertation and presentation. Students benefit from the expertise of WHRI, a world-leading pharmacology centre, based within QMUL. In 2019, WHRI introduced an intercalated BSc in Pharmacology and Innovative Therapeutics for Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) students.  
 

What I enjoyed most during my degree was being taught by lecturers who are closely engaged with innovative research in their respected fields as this allowed me to build professional and friendly relationships with them who were kind enough to mentor and advise me throughout my degree.


- Parsa Aiatollahi, final year student.

The unique element of this degree is using multiple mediums (lectures, tutorials, journal clubs, practical laboratory workshops) to deliver the course. The lectures cover a broad range of topics from essential pharmacological concepts to stages of the drug discovery process and to clinical trials and regulations. Feedback from students on the course has been valuable to appreciate the benefit of the course in developing transferable skills such as analytical thinking, teamwork and presentation skills. Anmolpreet Panesar, a final year student highlighted that a key benefit of this course was the opportunity to conduct research projects within WHRI. She spent a semester conducting a research project on aortic aneurysm with Dr Aisah Aubdool. She was able to learn about animal models and molecular techniques used in a pharmacology-based research setting, as well as receiving one-to-one guidance from her supervisor. She strongly believes that this course can provide opportunities for students to advance in a broad number of fields as pharmacology can open many doors in areas such as research, drug regulation or business. 

The evolving complexity of therapeutics in all subspecialties of medicine means a good understanding of pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and drug-drug interactions is becoming increasingly important. Pharmacology is so often overlooked for intercalated degrees, but it is a crucial component of every medical and surgical specialty. As a heavily research-driven field, it provides countless future opportunities, and an external intercalated medical student Nikhil Pattani from University of Birmingham would recommend this course to other medical students. Nikhil believed that it is crucial to understand pharmacokinetics, safety profile and rigorous testing behind these drugs he will be prescribing in future. Nikhil took a keen interest in the ‘Stem Cells & Regenerative Medicine’ module, particularly the use of 3D organoids to model anti-cancer drug screening.  

Without a doubt, my research project with the WHRI Molecular Endocrinology team was the highlight. Despite no previous lab experience, I gained proficiency in PCR/gel electrophoresis, immunofluorescence and histological staining techniques within a few weeks.


-Nikhil Pattani, intercalated medical student from University of Birmingham.

Although the academic year 2020-2021 was very challenging for all academics involved in the delivery of teaching across all institutions, QMUL provided an excellent support to staff and students during COVID-19. This has involved various workshops on designing asynchronous and synchronous activities along with the use of multiple online platforms. Dr Rayomand Khambata, a lecturer in vascular biology at QMUL was appointed as the module organiser for ‘Drug Design’ on the programme. This module covers the core areas of drug discovery such as methods for target identification and validation, various parameters involved in lead optimisation such as pharmacokinetics. Students are introduced to various concepts (e.g. artificial intelligence) in drug discovery by industrial experts. Teaching for this module was solely online, which whilst presents challenges also presented various opportunities to enhance student engagement using various platforms such as Mentimeter and Padlet.  

Lab opportunities during the pandemic 
 

The evolving complexity of therapeutics in all subspecialties of medicine means a good understanding of pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and drug-drug interactions is becoming increasingly important and I highly recommend this course to medical students who have an interest in establishing this foundational knowledge, as well as those who are keen to participate in ground-breaking research.


-Aadil Aubdool, internal intercalating student.
 

Laboratory-based projects are key for any inspiring pharmacologist and WHRI was able to accommodate multiple projects throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Khambata supervised three highly motivated students, which allowed him to get to know the students on a more personal level and support their career ambitions. Aadil Aubdool, an internal intercalating student commented that the highlight of his degree was undoubtedly his research project in the Ahluwalia lab with Dr Khambata. During the lab internship he gained valuable hands-on lab experience in the midst of a pandemic, without compromising his safety since all the appropriate measures (social distancing, PPE, online booking) were put in place. Within a few weeks of training, Aadil gained experience in experimental design and was confident with techniques such as immune cells isolation, western blotting and flow cytometry. Aadil emphasised the importance of project presentations in front of all members of the lab. Having enjoyed his time in the lab, he applied for the Rod Flower Scholarship to continue with his project over the summer months. This has brought him other opportunities such as working on the DiNOVasc-Covid-19 study with Dr Asad Shabbir which has been a great experience. 

The value of good role models, community and mentorship 

Barts and The London is known as a welcoming, friendly school, with excellent staff-student relationships. Students are taught by experts who are passionately engaged with their subject and have access to General Medical Council-commended student support and mentoring programme. Additionally, students benefit from the active WHRI ‘Pharmacological’ Society where events (meet & greets, games nights, organised talks) are frequently held from external speakers. Sophie Inthinathan, a final year student reported that her degree increased her confidence and provided her with opportunities to undertake various roles within the WHRI Society and as network leader for the BPS Undergraduate Network Community. Sophie was recently awarded the Student Contribution to Pharmacology prize by the British Pharmacological Society.  


The WHRI Pharmacological Society 

 

I strongly support mentorship and was fortunate to have great mentors such as Professor Rod Flower and Professor Sir Mark Caulfield throughout my academic education and career. Professor Goulding has been instrumental in helping and supporting me progress throughout my academic career. My inspirational female role models are Professor Amrita Ahluwalia, Professor Federica Marelli-Berg and Professor Sussan Nourshargh from WHRI. 

Professor Chris Thiemermann serves as mentor for students at QMUL and leads the 'Business & Pharmacology' module for the programme. Professor Thiemermann is a Scientist/Clinician with a strong research track record in cardiovascular disease and has significant commercial and drug development experience and since 2003 is the CEO of William Harvey Research Limited. When asked to comment about this module he reflected:
 

I really enjoy the interactions with our enthusiastic BSc-students. Our module ‘Business of Pharmacology’ not only allows our students to gain a significant understanding of the drug discovery and development process, but also to interact with leaders in industry and regulatory affairs to gain first-hand insight into the many career possibilities that their degree enables. I really hope that our personal mentorship programme will guide them and enable them to have a fantastic start to their respective scientific careers.

 

My advice to students would be:
 

Wherever your path takes you, it’s very important to build up a network of supportive colleagues and find a mentor who will support and encourage you to progress in your career. Learn from your mistakes, admit when you are wrong, take on board constructive criticism, which is not always easy. There will be many challenges and setbacks along the way and it’s very easy to get discouraged but be strong, believe in yourself and keep going. Most of all, be passionate and enjoy what you do.




Final year Pharmacology and Innovative Therapeutics students celebrate their success.  

In 2020, I was jointly awarded the Rang Prize with my colleague and mentor, Professor Nick Goulding.  This annual award by the British Pharmacological Society recognises excellence in teaching and exceptional contribution to pharmacology education in UK.

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Published: 12 May 2022

About the author

Dr Sadani Cooray



Dr Sadani Cooray is an Associate Professor (Reader) in Pharmacology Education and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA).  She currently serves as the co-Deputy Dean for Undergraduate Studies at the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry (FMD) at Queen Mary University of London and is the Undergraduate Education lead for the William Harvey Research Institute (WHRI) She leads the BSc and intercalated BSc degrees in Pharmacology & Innovative Therapeutics and teaches receptor pharmacology at QMUL. She also teaches on the Graduate Entry Programme Medicine and is currently the Chair of the BSc and intercalated BSc degrees School Examination Board for Global Health. Dr Cooray is a member of the British Pharmacological Society's Education and Training Network and the Society's UK Pharmacology networking committee. She has won several national and international awards including the 2020 QMUL Principal and President’s Prize for Education and 2020 British Pharmacological Society's Rang Prize.  

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