Dr. Namandje Bumpus discusses her educational path, and her research career in Pharmacology

While black history should be celebrated throughout the year and not just in February, the month provides the opportunity to not only recognize African Americans who have made significant contributions in the past, but also those who are presently making history. As there are numerous African American scientists and innovators who are typically celebrated during black history month in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), there are also quite few African American scientists in modern times that are worth recognizing. One such scientist is Dr. Namandje Bumpus (pronounced Na-Mon-Jay), of The Johns Hopkins University. On Feb. 1, 2016, Dr. Bumpus granted an interview to discuss her background, the path to her current career, and potential avenues for under-represented minorities to get involved in STEM. I originally published this piece when I wrote for the Examiner, and two years later, I’m republishing here on my blog.

Anwar Dunbar: First Namandje, thank you for this opportunity to interview you. My writings in February tend to focus on Black History Month and as a scientist myself I want to shine the light on other African American scientists and innovators who are currently in the trenches expanding our scientific knowledge. Also being in the biological sciences versus the information technology and robotics fields, it’s not so obvious to the lay person what a pharmacologist is, so for all of these reasons I thought about you. With those things being said, let’s start.

Talk a little bit about your background. Where are you from? Were there any scientists in your family who you were exposed to at an early age? Were you always interested in science? If so, was it always biology or were you good at other parts of STEM, mathematics for example?

Namandje Bumpus: I was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in western Massachusetts. There were no scientists in my family. I had an uncle who spent some time working in a lab as an undergraduate student. He wasn’t a scientist, but he still talked to me about how he enjoyed working in the lab. Hearing about his experiences working in a lab was interesting to me. Early on I liked chemistry. My parents and others in my family started getting me chemistry sets when I was in elementary school because I started vocalizing that I thought science would be something interesting to do.

I worked through them (chemistry sets) and I really liked it, and when I was ten (pre-email), I actually wrote a letter to the American Chemical Society to ask about information for careers for chemists. They sent me back lots of brochures and a letter discussing things you could do with a chemistry background. That really got me even more excited just having all of that information and starting to dream about the things that I would do. So I was really more chemistry focused until high school when I finally took a physiology class, and then realized that I wanted to lean more towards biology and physiology.

AD: Talk briefly about your educational path. We overlapped at the University of Michigan’s Department of Pharmacology. How did you get there? What got you interested in research?

NB: I went to Occidental College, a small liberal arts college and did some research there. We didn’t have many labs so I was doing plant research and I really liked that, but I thought that I wanted to do something that was more directly related to human health and physiology, so I started researching certain fields to see what that would be. I came across Pharmacology and it was something that seemed interesting, so the summer after my junior year, I applied for summer research programs in Pharmacology so I could try it out.

Michigan had a summer program called the Charles H. Ross Program for African American undergraduates to come and work in the Pharmacology Department for a summer, so I applied for that and I got it. That summer before my senior year, I had a really great experience in the department in general. I worked in Dr. Richard Neubig’s lab, and they gave us a short course where I was introduced to the principals of Pharmacology. That really sold me on Pharmacology and since I also had such a great experience in the department, I became really interested in going to the University of Michigan for graduate school.

AD: Not a lot of people understand what doctoral training is like and what it entails. You chose the lab of Dr. Paul Hollenberg which was a Cytochrome-P450 lab and we will discuss that, but what was it like learning how to do research? For example, what was the question you were looking to answer through your thesis project?

NB: In my project I was specifically looking at how genetic variances and mutations that existed in the population could impact their ability to metabolically clear certain drugs that are used clinically. We focused on a drug used to treat depression called Buproprion, and we looked at an HIV drug called Efavirenz. So I was looking at how genetic mutations could affect clearance of the drugs, and how those genetic variances might impact different people having genetic differences in drug-drug interactions.

AD: So would that be in the area of Pharmacogenomics?

NB: Yes.

AD: So as a Postdoctoral scientist did you work on a similar project? Or did you go in a completely different direction?

NB: Yes, my postdoc was somewhat different. I was looking at how lipids and fatty acids are cleared and how we regulate that process. Specifically, I was trying to find which pathways in cells were responsible for the metabolism of fatty acids. In particular, we were interested in stress activated pathways and seeing how activation of these stress pathways impacted expression of Cytochrome P450s that were responsible for metabolism of lipids.

AD: So right now in your own lab, what are you all working on?

NB: Lots of different things. The major focus has still been P450s, but looking at two different areas. The first is seeing how P450s and their metabolites contribute to drug induced toxicities, and to see if there are ways we can mitigate toxicities. We’ve had a focus on drug usage through HIV. The other side of my lab has been helping in collaborative clinical teams to develop drugs for HIV prevention, and trying to figure out how people’s pharmacogenetic variances in drug metabolism can impact their therapeutic responses when they are taking drugs used for HIV prevention.

AD: Now just briefly, from your doctoral studies through your postdoc, were there skills that you had to develop or did you come ready to go with everything? What were your major learning points as you worked through your thesis and your postdoc?

NB: My postdoc was really different. The experimental tools that I learned during my dissertation didn’t really help with what I wanted to do in my postdoc. I wanted to learn something new. Obviously the thinking and knowing how to design experiments was translatable. In graduate school I was doing a lot of mass spectrometry, more chemical-type techniques, and more biochemistry and enzymology. In my postdoc I was doing more in vivo biology and physiology, so I was using mice for the first time. I had never worked with a whole animal before. So I had to do a lot of cell isolation experiments and injections, things I had never done before; so I really had to learn a lot of new techniques for my postdoc. Now in my lab its great because we’re able to combine all of that, so we do a lot of mass spectrometry, biochemical techniques, in vitro mechanistic stuff/enzymology, as well as a lot more whole animal work, and a lot more whole cell work, things that I picked up in my postdoc, and I was able to combine both skill sets to build my program.

AD: And you did your postdoc at?

NB: The Scripps Research Institute.

AD: Did you always have the leadership skills necessary to run a lab or did you have to learn them? Was it a work in progress?

NB: Yes, you always build on it and it’s still a work in progress. I think you don’t necessarily get trained for it in graduate school or as a postdoc, but I tried to participate in things that were extracurricular; the Association for Minority Scientists at Michigan, and in my postdoc I was a part of our postdoctoral association, so I tried to pick up leadership skills by being involved in those other groups; but even still you’re not prepared to run your own lab. You really learn it as you go; you try things to see how they work. You talk to senior colleagues to get their advice and potentially go back and try something else. You take mentorship or leadership classes which I’ve done too, but I think it’s always a work in progress.

AD: We’re almost done. For the lay person, what are Cytochrome P450s and why are they important?

NB: They are proteins expressed in our bodies in all tissues, but mostly in the liver. What they largely help us to do is clear foreign compounds from our bodies. So for instance, if you are taking a drug therapeutically, you take it orally and you swallow it, one of the first places it’s going to go is into your liver. Your liver doesn’t want it to hang around and be inside of your cells forever, so we have these proteins that will change (biotransform) these drugs structurally to make them something that can be removed from your cells and removed from your liver. Thus, P450s are proteins that help us to clear foreign compounds and molecules. Drugs are obviously a large percentage of the foreign compounds that we’re exposed to, so we call them drug metabolizing enzymes.

AD: All of us went different routes after leaving Michigan. Some landed in the private sector in big pharma or the chemical industry. Others like myself, went into the public sector on the regulatory side, and I think I’m one of the only ones from our department to do that. A large chunk of our graduates went into academia which requires a ton of skills: leadership skills, entrepreneurial skills, and teaching skills. It’s also a very competitive environment and I very much admire my peers, such as yourself, who went that route. What made you decide to go into academia as opposed to the private sector or some other track?

NB: I think academia is the only thing that really fits my personality. I really like interacting with and training students. I like having a really close relationship with them where they come and work in my lab for several years while they work on earning a Ph.D. I get to see them grow. It’s similar with postdoctoral fellows. They come to the lab for a couple of years and I help them try to get to the next stage in their career.

I really love the educational aspect of the training. Additionally, I really like the broader training environment. In addition to my associate professorship, I’m also associate dean in the area of education where I get to spend a lot of time with graduate students who aren’t in my lab. I work more broadly with other graduate students helping them decide which lab they should choose for their thesis, and what they want to do next with their career. I further help them identify training opportunities for careers that they might want outside of academia. I really enjoy education training so this is the place for me.

Also, I like that scientifically, if I can dream it I can do it. If we have something that I really want to test in my lab, we can find a way to do it and test it out. I like the autonomy and the ability to be that creative with our science as well, so I think it’s a really good fit for my personality and goals.

AD: Now lastly, what advice would you give to young African American girls or those who are curious about science, but not sure that they can do it, or parents who are reading this and want to expose their kids to science?

NB: I think first knowing that if it’s something you really want to do, then you can do it. I think what’s most important about being a scientist is the passion for it and the interest. It’s not about everyone thinking that you’re brilliant. It’s about being interested and being a curious person and organically interested in science. I think it depends on which stage you’re at. If you’re in elementary school, starting off like me getting chemistry sets and microscopes is a good start – getting kids the type of gifts that will stimulate their interest and curiosity in science. Make them see that they do have the ability to do experiments and explore things on their own, and I really think that can get them even more excited about it. Microscopes, chemistry sets, and telescopes, those are things you start with from five years old.

Often times there are summer camps. At Johns Hopkins we have summer programs for people, middle school students and high school students. At many different stages you can contact local universities and museums to see if they have summer camps for science that kids can go to and that can be helpful. A lot of schools including ours have high school programs. In ours you can spend the whole summer working on a project and I think that’s a great way to see if you like scientific research and really get excited about doing research; so I think there are a lot of opportunities. You just have look out for them. The best place to start is contacting local universities and museums. Most universities will have a community engagement program you can contact for opportunities.

AD: The last question, Namandje, involves something personal you shared with me. The science community recently suffered a great loss, someone who was a mentor to you. Would you like to say a few words in memory of this individual? From what I gather, this person was also a female African American scientist.

NB: Sure. Her name was Dr. Marion Sewer. She was a full professor at the University of California-San Diego, and a Pharmacologist as well. She worked on endocrinology and really did a lot to understand the endocrine system and how it impacts lipid metabolism.

She was just a very highly regarded scientist and she was also someone who cared a lot about outreach. She ran a lot of programs that were focused on diversity and giving opportunities for people in high school through undergraduate school, and really spent time with postdocs to make sure there were really opportunities for people of different backgrounds, including African Americans, particularly for African Americans to have exposure to science. She was someone who was a really great colleague, a really great scientist and someone who also, in a rare way, really cared about people, service, equity and inclusion in science. She really inspired me and helped me to get my first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant by reviewing it for me several times. She was more senior and experienced, and I think a lot of us have that same story where she helped us get started because she was so generous with her time, so it was definitely a really big loss.

AD: Well thank you for this interview opportunity, Namandje, and your willingness to discuss your life and career. A lot of people will benefit from this.

NB: Thank you, Anwar.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?

Similar to Pharmacology, the field of Toxicology is centuries old and is very complex regarding the wealth and depth of information available.  It is also still evolving today.  The goal of this post is not to address every detail of the field, but instead to give readers a basic introductory understanding of the discipline.  Further details about the many aspects of Toxicology can be accessed online, or in scientific journals.

When I meet people outside of my scientific circles at career and STEM fairs, Toxicology doesn’t get confused with other disciplines the way Pharmacology and Pharmacy do – I thus won’t open with a story about misunderstandings.  I’ll simply say that Toxicology an exciting field with vast opportunities for individuals who are trained in it.  Following my principle of “Creating Ecosystems of Success”, I wanted to write an overview of the field – particularly for parents and young students who have an aptitude for science and may be interested in Toxicology as a career one day.  As you’ll see later on, Toxicology is an important component of numerous industries, and scientists with this training will never be without jobs.

“The dose makes the poison,” is the popular toxicology adage credited to the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus.  Simply put, given the proper dose, even chemicals and substances considered harmless can be poisonous – too much sugar or water for example.  Dosage or the amount of a substance one is exposed to is a key component of Toxicology – keep this in mind as you read through this post.  Also keep in mind the route of exposure.  Toxicologists are always considering that an individual can be poisoned through oral ingestion, or through either dermal or inhalation exposures.

I think of Pharmacology and Toxicology as “sister” sciences – both dealing with the effects of xenobiotics on living systems.  While Pharmacology focuses more on the therapeutic effects of xenobiotics, Toxicology focuses on the harmful effects – in most cases humans but in some instances other mammalian and non-mammalian species.  These effects can occur on the molecular, cellular, tissue, and whole organism levels. While Pharmacology and Toxicology are separate disciplines, they have several overlapping principles and skill sets allowing individuals credentialed in one to work in the other.

I’ll start my discussion of why Toxicology is important with drugs.  Both biotechnology and large pharmaceutical compan9ies have to understand and report a drug’s toxicological profile to the federal government before selling it to the general public.  Many promising drugs actually never make it to market because they’re too toxic.  Some actually make it and are then recalled – Rezulin for example.

There are also both clinical and research contexts for Toxicology.  Similar to Pharmacology, all medical practitioners (Anesthesiologists, Physicians, Pharmacists, Nurses, Surgeons, etc.) must receive some toxicology training as they all need an understanding of the potential toxicities of the drugs they’ll ultimately prescribe.  They need to understand how much of a given pharmaceutical will be beneficial vs. harmful to patient – a drug’s “Therapeutic Index”.  If the patient is taking multiple medications, “Drug-Drug” interactions can result – toxicities and side effects resulting from one or more drugs being present in the body at the same time causing others be poisonous.  The patient’s current liver and kidney function are critical here as well as they will ultimately determine how long the drugs persist in the body.  In an emergency room, physicians must often determine what a patient may have been poisoned by in order make swift life-saving decisions.

Forensic Toxicologists are instrumental in solving crimes and deaths.  They’re masters of detecting chemicals in the body’s tissues and understanding how they may have led to a victim’s death.  Michael Jackson’s overdose on “Propofol” comes to mind, and is just one of many examples.

In the research context, think about experimentation in laboratory settings – well designed studies run by scientists asking questions and looking for specific answers.  Initial toxicological studies typically involve determining how a toxicant exerts its effect on the molecular and then on the tissue/organ levels – similar to how Pharmacologists identify new drug targets.  After determining a toxicant’s molecular mechanism, there is then the need to determine the toxic dose range of the chemical at the molecular, tissue and whole animal levels.  This is called a “Dose Response” – a critical tool of both Pharmacology and Toxicology where scientists look to determine if increasing the amount of the chemical in question, increases the amount of biological response.  This applies to a broad spectrum of chemicals – pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals alike.

What am I referring to when I say industrial chemicals?  Simply look around your home at all of the products you use daily including: household cleaners, cosmetics, pesticides (Raid for example), and even additives and preservatives in some the foods we consume.  Thus when you think about Toxicology, think very broad in terms of scope.  For this reason, individuals with toxicology training will never be without jobs as everything we use must be screened for safety.  Toxicologists are currently in high demand.

Similar to Pharmacology, there are numerous sub-disciplines within Toxicology.  The following is a list of some of the major areas beyond what’s been described thus far.  These areas are heavily considered by government agencies and private sector companies who all need toxicologists to create new products, determine the safety of those products, and lastly determine the fate of those products once used:

  • Aquatic, Eco- and Environmental Toxicology: While these are distinct disciplines all in themselves, I’ve grouped them together for simplicity. They collectively consider toxicity to non-human life – aquatic, avian, other terrestrial life.  They consider what happens to ecosystems if a particular species is inadvertently killed off.  Some questions involve where the toxicant goes in our environment, how long it stays there, and if it breaks down into something else more or less toxic.
  • Computational (In silico) Toxicology: Uses computational models, to predict mammalian toxicities. “Tox21” is a current effort to minimize animal testing using computational and predictive models.
  • Entomotoxicology: Determines how a given chemical is toxic to insect species. This is very important for the creation of pesticides, and it’s also critical for Ecotoxicology as the chemical designed to control specific insects may easily kill something else unintended.

  • Food Safety Toxicology: Looks at the potential toxicity of man-made or natural ingredients intentionally added to our food. Heat formed compounds are of particular concern – acrylamide and furan are examples which can spontaneously form during the cooking of certain precursor molecules.  Lastly the ingredients in food packaging are also considered as they can be ingested through the foods they are in contact with.
  • Forensic Toxicology: As described above, deals with the solving of crimes – often determining what a victim was poisoned with.
  • In vitro Toxicology: Characterizes how a toxicant works using cell models and protein systems as opposed to whole animals.

  • Mammalian Toxicology: Studies the effects of a given toxicant on mammalian systems – traditionally using animals to model to human toxicity. Experiments can be designed over multiple dose ranges and through any of the three routes of exposure – oral, dermal or inhalation.  Time of these studies can range from hours to days, to years.  Varying indices can be studied such as life-stage sensitivity, cancer potential, or the ability to inhibit one’s immune response.  Mammalian toxicology is very important in “Regulatory” settings described below.
  • Modes of toxic action: Characterizes how toxicants exert their action on the molecular, cellular and whole animal levels. This information can be used to design chemicals to control something like a pest, or to determine how a cancer tumor-type forms.
  • Medical Toxicology: As described above, deals with the prevention of patient poisoning in medical settings.
  • Occupational Toxicology: Involves potential toxicity to workers who are in contact with a given toxicant and may get exposed through their skin or through inhalation.

  • Regulatory Toxicology (Private Sector): When the private sector creates a product, it must work with federal and state government agencies to determine the safety of that product. The products can be: drugs, pesticides, cosmetics, food additives, paints – you name it.  Regulatory Toxicologists in the private sector must understand government laws and guidelines for the products they’re creating – knowing which animal and in vitro studies to run to get their product registered in the most cost efficient way.
  • Regulatory Toxicology (Public Sector): Involves government and state agencies determining the safety of products produced by private industry. This usually consists of considering real world human exposures, and looking at any pertinent data (animal, in vitro, exposure or physical chemical) that might help model those exposures to determine levels of safety or lack thereof.
  • Toxicogenomics: Similar to Pharmacogenomics, looks at the genetics unique to individuals to determine potential increased toxicity for that individual.
  • Toxinology: Deals specifically with animal, plant and microbial toxins.
  • Toxicokinetics: Similar to the description in my Pharmacology post, Toxicokinetics deals with how the body handles toxicants in terms of absorption (entry to the body), tissue accumulation (distribution), biotransformation (metabolism) of the molecule, and excretion (elimination). I will revisit Pharmacokinetics and Toxicokinetics in greater detail in a separate post.

So have I convinced you that toxicologists are literally everywhere?  Similar to pharmacologists, toxicologists can leverage their skill sets to work in other capacities besides academia, and the public and private sectors.  When combined with other fields such as law and business, toxicologists can start their own companies – consulting for example, and in some cases they can create new health-related technologies and innovations.

There are numerous avenues by which to pursue training in Toxicology.  According the website of the Society of Toxicology, training can start as early as high school and the amount of training one pursues (Bachelors, Masters, Ph.D.) will depend upon specific career goals.  As there is tremendous overlap in skill sets of scientists in the biomedical sciences, one need not have a degree in “Toxicology” per se to work in the field in most cases. An exception is the federal government which is very stringent in terms of matching one’s academic credentials exactly with job openings regardless of one’s actual scientific training and expertise.  An individual for example with a Masters or Ph.D. in another biological science, MD, or a DVM for example can receive training in Toxicology through postdoctoral fellowship.

Toxicology also has a unique certification – the Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology (DABT).  Earning one’s DABT allows toxicologists to be nationally certified which is particularly important in the private sector, and in capacities such as serving as expert witnesses in litigations.  The European Union has a similar certification titled “European Registered Toxicologists” (ERT).

If you are interested in learning more about the exciting field of Toxicology, I suggest that you visit the website of the Society of Toxicology (SOT) – the major professional society for Toxicology.  Click on the “Careers” tab and scroll down to the “Becoming a Toxicologist” tab.  A wealth of information is available talking about numerous aspects of the field.  Similar to Pharmacology, Toxicology has its own annual meeting hosted by SOT where scientists gather to network, discuss their results, employers seek new job prospects, and companies show their latest devices and technologies.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and I hope I was able to shed some light onto what Toxicology is.  If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

A special thank you is also extended to Dr. Chester Rodriguez for his contribution to this post, and sharing the importance of earning one’s DABT.

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?

The field of Pharmacology is centuries old and it is very complex with respect to the wealth and depth of information available.  It is still evolving today.  The goal of this post is not to address every detail of the field, but instead to give readers a basic introductory understanding of the discipline.  Further details about the many aspects of Pharmacology can be accessed online, or in scientific journals.

I earned my Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan.  I admittedly didn’t understand the field initially, although I did know that it dealt with drugs and hoped that a degree in it would one day secure a position for me in the Pharmaceutical industry.  Since starting my studies in 1999, completing my degree in 2005, and starting my current career as a Regulatory Scientist, I’ve gotten the same question over and over again, “You have a background in Pharmacology?  Are you a Pharmacist?”  At Career and STEM Fairs, I get this question a lot, and thus following my principle of “Creating Ecosystems of Success“, I wanted to write a brief overview of the field – particularly for parents and young students who have an aptitude for science and may be interested in Pharmacology as a career one day.

“Simply put, Pharmacy is the study of what drugs do to man, and Pharmacology is the study of what man does to drugs,” said one of the Cancer Pharmacology faculty in our Principles of Pharmacology course during my first year of graduate school.  This statement explained in a very simple way some of the differences between the two disciplines.  Pharmacy is the study of the actual drugs administered to patients as therapeutic agents and its practitioners work at various institutions including hospitals, medical centers, and drug stores – CVS for example.  Pharmacists are health professionals, earn Doctor of Pharmacy degrees (Pharm Ds), are experts on medications, and are responsible for dispensing medicines.  Pharmacology is a basic research science that studies the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effects of pharmaceuticals and potential drug candidates with the goal of developing and testing of new drugs.

All medical practitioners (Anesthesiologists, Physicians, Pharmacists, Nurses, Surgeons, etc.) must take Pharmacology courses as they all need some understanding of the mechanisms of the drugs they ultimately prescribe.  Pharmacologists are the actual researchers performing experiments trying to create new drugs and identify new drug targets.  They further seek to characterize how mammalian systems (in most cases human although they are also involved in developing veterinary drugs) handle molecules at the molecular, cellular, tissue and whole organism levels.  It’s a vast field with many areas of specialization that I’ll discuss in the remainder of this post.

Pharmacology classically can be divided into two parts; Pharmacokinetics, which deals with how the drug is absorbed and eliminated by the body, and Pharmacodynamics, which deals with how the drug exerts its medicinal effect mechanistically.  The following sub-disciplines within Pharmacology generally fall under one of these two umbrellas or, in most cases, are a mixture of the two.  Each of us or someone we know has taken a drug or a treatment which has been impacted by one of these areas.  Any pharmacologist reading this can easily further parse this list out into greater detail, but again this was written for a general audience:

  • ADME/Drug Metabolism: Deals with how the body handles the therapeutic molecules in terms of absorption (entry to the body), tissue accumulation (distribution), biotransformation (metabolism) of the molecule, and excretion (elimination). Another focus of ADME/Drug Metabolism is “Drug Transport” which focuses on how drugs are absorbed and effluxed from cells using membrane channels and transporters impacting their effectiveness.  I will revisit ADME/Drug Metabolism in greater detail in a separate post as me and some of my peers know it pretty well and find it to be a very exciting aspect of both Pharmacology and Toxicology.
  • Antimicrobial Pharmacology: Involves the control of bacteria, fungi, and viruses to fight off or prevent infections.
  • Autonomic Pharmacology: Deals with how the drug interacts with the Autonomic Nervous System (that part of the nervous system responsible for controlling bodily functions that are not consciously directed such as the heartbeat, breathing, and the digestive system) particularly through pathways involving epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and seratonin.
  • Cancer Pharmacology: Deals with drugs used in the treatment of cancer – usually some form of chemotherapy.
  • Cardiovascular Pharmacology: Deals with drugs used in treatment of heart disease and regulation of blood pressure.  A well-known class is the “Statins” – cholesterol lowering drugs such as “Lipitor“.
  • Endocrine and Receptor Pharmacology: Deals with how a given drug binds, interacts or even blockades a given cellular receptor, and then what the receptor does or doesn’t do to impact the homeostasis of that cell or tissue. The receptor can be membrane bound or cytosolic (many hormone receptors).
  • Drug Discovery: Typically associated with the private sector and deals with the identification of new drug entities and the identification of new drug targets. In industry, pharmacologists generally refer to drugs as either “small molecules” which are our classic drugs like Aspirin (~180 g/mol), or “large molecules” (as heavy as 150,000 g/mol) also known as “biologics” which are generally proteins which have therapeutic effects.  An example is Abbvie’sHumira”.  The units “g/mol” or grams per mole designate a chemical’s molecular weight and as you can see the size difference between the two classes is considerable.
  • Neuropharmacology: Similar to Autonomic Pharmacology but deals with all of the other parts of the nervous system such as pain responses – analgesics and anesthetics for example.
  • Pharmacogenomics: This new and exciting field looks at the genetics unique to individuals to determine the best treatments and dosages for that individual.

For each of these sub-disciplines there is a clinical side and a research side.  The clinical side is self-explanatory – it involves treating patients for various diseases as well as the prevention of illness by the above mentioned medical practitioners.  Think of the many medications you have been prescribed when you go to see medical doctors when you’re sick or for checkups, emergencies or surgeries.  But where do these medications come from originally?  Also, where will new medications come from in the future?

This is where the research side come comes into play.  At institutions like my alma mater, and in the private sector, there are scientists working year round on research projects asking questions about current medications in addition to trying to unlock the secrets of nature to create new therapeutics.  The investigations they perform involve testing molecules using whole animal models, cellular models, and in vitro systems to ask questions at the molecular level (proteins, lipids, DNA and RNA) about what the compound does.  It’s this research that can get very esoteric to the general public and that is published in academic journals including: Drug Metabolism and Disposition, the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Experimental Therapeutics, and Molecular Pharmacology.

Pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Pfizer conduct research as well but instead of doing it strictly to find new knowledge, it’s to create new drugs that they can sell.  The same is true for smaller Biotech companies like Biogen.  Both need scientists with backgrounds in Pharmacology.  The Federal Government also employs scientists with backgrounds in Pharmacology to determine the safety of new drugs before they can be prescribed to the general public.  The same is true for food products and chemicals used in those products, so Pharmacologists are literally everywhere.

Pharmacologists generally receive their training at major research universities.  While undergraduates can get training in Pharmacology – nursing students for example, degrees in Pharmacology are usually conferred at the Masters and Ph.D. levels and support for the student’s educational expenses as well as a modest salary are provided.  Upon attaining these degrees, scientists then determine which sector they want to pursue – academia, the private or public sectors, or nontraditional careers.  With the skills obtained in graduate school, scientists with these backgrounds have the flexibility to combine their knowledge sets with other disciplines to go into a wide variety of areas in addition to drug discovery in pharmaceutical companies and biotechs including: consulting, Toxicology, patent law and even starting their own companies.

If you are interested in learning more about the exciting field of Pharmacology, I suggest that you visit the website of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).  You can then click on the Education & Careers link near the top of the page.  In the right hand column, there is a link titled About Pharmacology, that provides a great deal of interesting information.  Speaking of ASPET, all scientific disciplines have their own professional societies with annual meetings that rotate cities every year, and where scientists congregate to show their results, and network.  The two major professional societies for pharmacologists are ASPET, and the International Society for the Study of Xenobiotics (ISSX).

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and I hope I was able to shed some light onto what Pharmacology is.  If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

A special thank you is also extended to Dr. Paul Hollenberg, Chair of the Department of Pharmacology at The University of Michigan when I was a student, who graciously looked at this post and gave feedback prior my publishing it.

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