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Sound Future for Pharmacology Majors

A man in a white lab coat takes a deep breath and rests from his research. He grins at his colleagues. After years of research, he and his team have just successfully discovered a drug that stops the growth of cancerous cells.

Could this happen? It's one of the scenarios that pharmacology students are working towards.

Ancient civilizations recognized that certain plants and plant extracts healed wounds and brought pain relief. This began a quest to discover, create and research medicines to better man's existence and bring longer life.

It also created the foundation for the science of pharmacology as it exists today.

Pharmacologists shouldn't be confused with pharmacists. Pharmacologists reveal the secrets of drug actions. They discover new therapies and create new medicinal products.

Once a drug passes the tests, it moves on to the pharmacist. A pharmacist works in the pharmacy in your local drugstore. He or she is responsible for preparing and dispensing medicine. Pharmacists may also answer any questions you might have about the medication.

Pharmacology is very closely associated with toxicology. Both are experimental sciences. Pharmacologists research the actions and effects of drugs on living systems. Toxicologists research the extent of the toxic effects of molecules on living cells and organisms.

Renee Suen is a student in a toxicology specialist program. She is also president of the Pharmacology and Toxicology Association. "There are so many options one can go in: drug development, synthesis, testing," says Suen.

"And with the current status of health care, and our continual use of medical treatments for a variety of conditions, it can be easy to see how there is a demand for pharmacologists, not only for the development of these drugs but also to evaluate their safety."

Mary Michaelis is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Kansas. She believes that many students are attracted to the field because of the "medical nature of the field where they can do research that has the potential applications in medicine, but it's still focused more on research."

Pharmacologists spend a lot of time performing experiments and studying the effects. They are involved in several types of research. Biological research is carried out using experimental animals such as mice and rats. Most of this type of experimental research is done in universities or research institutes.

Suen recognizes that the career path she has chosen is challenging. "There is a constant challenge for more discoveries, which for me is a key factor," she says.

"Pharmacology's immediate imprint on me was that it is new, hot, booming and in demand. That's always a comforting thing to know, especially with the current concern that one cannot do much after finishing a science degree."

Jobs are easy to find for pharmacology majors because of their specific knowledge.

Michaelis tells of the specific areas that pharmacology majors study. "They learn the basics of cell biology, physiology, and then of course the mechanisms of drug actions. So they have to learn about all the different types of drugs -- antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs -- before they specialize in their own research programs," she says.

"Students specialize when they actually work on their dissertation research programs. They could be working in central nervous system, cardiovascular, molecular pharmacology or molecular toxicology."

Michaelis notes that pharmacologists usually need doctorate degrees. Yet she adds that "there are some positions in the pharmaceutical industry or biotechnology where master's degrees are highly sought after, but a number of people, of course, do want to go on to the PhD. It gives them a little more independence."

Suen tends to agree. "I know that in general, most majors of pharmacology do continue on with school. Some end up as professors. Some go on to work in the drug industry. Some, I have heard, have the opportunity to go into industry practically right after undergraduate studies."

Pharmacologists are comfortable with, and quite enjoy, conducting research. All those years spent working toward an advanced degree in pharmacology aren't a problem. They love their work. They love unlocking the mysteries of the effects of drugs on living systems.


The United States Pharmacopeia
Sets standards for medicines

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