February 14, 2023
PhD student Mariana Romero-Gonzalez works in the Brunaugh Lab, where research focuses on underlying mechanisms for respiratory disease progression to determine appropriate therapeutic targets.
PhD student Mariana Romero-Gonzalez works in the Brunaugh Lab, where research focuses on underlying mechanisms for respiratory disease progression to determine appropriate therapeutic targets.

By Madeline Swanson | Photos by Marc-Grégor Campredon

Have you ever thought about where the next life-saving vaccine or medication may be discovered? Or where cutting-edge methods for monitoring medications in the body—like biosensors—are being developed? At the University of Michigan’s nationally recognized College of Pharmacy, students are gaining early exposure to the field and helping to drive important discoveries about medications and the ways they behave in our bodies, thanks, in part, to donor support.

And recently, donors funded scholarships and initiatives that are helping to expand access to a Michigan pharmacy education, diversify the field, and ultimately improve health outcomes. The way College of Pharmacy Dean Vicki Ellingrod sees it, philanthropy is helping to support the college’s three priorities: investing in innovation, making a U-M pharmacy education accessible to everyone, and broadening the college’s connections, both locally and throughout the world.

“We know that, if you’re talking about the profession of pharmacy, our demographics do not match the general demographics of the United States,” said Ellingrod, who is also the John Gideon Searle Professor of Clinical and Translational Pharmacy. “I really feel that Michigan has a responsibility to make sure that the profession identifies with the communities that we’re serving.”

Diversifying the profession starts with students. Now, two new scholarships and a foundation grant are helping to do just that by supporting students and enhancing health care experiences for underrepresented populations. 

Encouraging advanced education

The College of Pharmacy dean posing for a photo in a hallway with vases on the ledge behind her.

While the field of pharmacy has made strides toward racial and gender diversification, the workforce does not yet fully reflect the patients in the communities it serves, according to Ellingrod. Efforts to bring an array of PhD candidates to Michigan—from first-generation college students to veterans and other underrepresented groups—can be seen through the newly established Joy Scholars Program and Grim Scholars Program. 

Supported by an endowment from the Hough Family Foundation, the Joy Scholars Program provides funding for PhD students who come from an educational, cultural, or geographic background that contributes to the diversity of graduate students in their discipline in the United States or at U-M.

David and Bonnie Hough, leaders of the Hough Family Foundation, believe in U-M’s unique ability to produce the next generation of pharmaceutical leaders—and it starts with supporting the students that will one day be at the forefront of breakthroughs in the field.

“We certainly hope that we open doors to a lot of students who otherwise might not have been able to get such an education or may have been lost to other institutions,” said David Hough, president of the Hough Family Foundation. “U-M’s College of Pharmacy is an extremely good pharmaceutical institution, and this is a place we want students to come to.”

Two hands with rubber gloves on holding a jar and brush above a scale with a liquid sample on it.

These doors have been opened to students like Madison Frazier, a second-year PhD student in the Medical Chemistry program. Frazier is currently working on a project to develop a drug that can help detect a biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease.

Joy Scholars, like Frazier, receive funding to use at their discretion, whether they need financial assistance to pay for books or extra funds to attend a conference. Thanks to the Joy Scholarship, Frazier can better focus on her research knowing she has a “financial safety net.”

“Getting this scholarship means that I don’t have to burden anyone in my family, because I know that they won’t necessarily have the financial means to help me with some sort of big expense, should one arise,” Frazier said. “Through the university and through the scholarship, I have a little bit of a buffer in terms of emergency funding.”

For Mariana Romero-Gonzalez, being selected as the first Grim Scholar is helping her pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a scientist.

“I had these really cool science books in elementary school, and when I got them, even before the school year started, I would just read them for fun,” Romero-Gonzalez recalled. “I’ve always really enjoyed science. My favorite games while growing up always involved making potions and mixing a bunch of things.”

Now, as a second-year PhD student in the Pharmaceutical Sciences program, her research focuses on developing pharmaceutical interventions that help treat opportunistic infections and restore lung microbiome diversity through different drug-delivery approaches.

Two female students in lab coats, rubber gloves, and protective goggles both hold a container of samples showing the results of a test.

Established in honor of Dr. Wayne M. Grim (PhD ’60) and his wife, Norma, the Grim Scholarship is awarded specifically to a PhD student in the Pharmaceutical Sciences program, from which he graduated. His daughter, Beth Kershaw, and her sisters, made a gift to establish the scholarship, with the goal of expanding the program in the future.

“My dad and mom both recently passed and always said it was the best time of their lives at the University of Michigan,” Kershaw said. “They contributed to the university throughout the years, and my dad was a ‘True Blue’ Michigan man. With this gift, my whole family wanted to honor their legacy of giving, which was inspired by the loss of their son, Michael, in a car accident decades ago. We want to show that out of grief, something wonderful can come.”

“Supporting students so they can do what they need to do to finish their degrees and then go on and establish a really exceptional career is the inspiration behind these programs, and removing that sort of social stress students might feel so they can really focus on science,” Ellingrod said. 

Building bridges 

Two new initiatives, funded by a grant from the McKesson Foundation, aim to not only attract a broad group of students to the pharmacy field, but also to improve health outcomes for underserved communities. 

As Ellingrod notes, a diverse workforce is necessary to meet the needs of a diverse population, and when it comes to equitable health care, people of color often face more barriers to access.

To address this at the student level, funding from the grant will support the Pharmacy Community College Connect (PC3) initiative—building bridges with students from Michigan community colleges and tribal colleges in hopes of attracting these students to careers in pharmacy. Accepted students will complete a 10-week summer program and have access to seminars, mentors, academic advising, and more, with no out-of-pocket costs. 

“The PC3 program is making sure that students understand early on, perhaps even before they’re considering pharmacy as a profession, but they know they want to pursue a career that’s science-based, that pharmacy is a really great profession, and that these doors are open to them and we want them to walk through those doors,” Ellingrod said.

A woman holding up lab test samples under the lights in the room and looking up at them.

A second initiative, the McKesson Foundation Health Equity Seminar Series, will explore inequities in health care for affected communities, bringing together community leaders and health practitioners to explore topics ranging from food insecurity’s impact on health disparities to rural health care. Ellingrod also noted that this program, in particular, will “ensure that the students we have in our program understand the importance of social determinants of health through our speaker series and are able to translate that into their future practice.”

Small college, big impact

Together, these three initiatives are not only expanding access to pharmacy education, but also supporting students in a holistic way that allows them to focus on learning instead of how they will be able to afford different academic opportunities.

For Ellingrod, it’s about improving health care for all and engaging a diverse cohort of students in a world-class education and cutting-edge research, which may be the path to discovering that next life-saving vaccine. At Michigan, donors play a key role in making such discoveries happen. 

“I think even though we have this tagline that we are small by design, we are not small in our impact by any stretch of the imagination.”