Pharmacy school provides the right formula for former chemistry teacher

Headshot Mcdowell 2 Growing up with severe asthma, first-year pharmacy student Brittiana McDowell had frequent interactions with her pharmacist and pediatrician due to her chronic condition.

She was fascinated by the effectiveness of the medication in controlling her asthma and the collaboration among the health care team to keep her well. It’s this experience that sparked her interest in chemistry and, eventually, pharmacy school.

“This ignited my curiosity in learning more about the human body and the mechanism of action for medications, which ultimately led me to pursue a degree in chemistry,” she said.

McDowell began her journey at Langston University, the only historically black college or university in the state of Oklahoma. It was there that she discovered her passion for research, earning summer research internships with the NASA Ames Research Center and Langston’s Science Research Institute.

“This opportunity allowed me to research the effect of medicinal plant extracts on prevention of latent virus reactivation in astronauts caused by exposure to microgravity,” McDowell said. “The long-term goal of this research is to help astronauts prepare for long-haul spaceflight and protect special populations, such as immunocompromised individuals and infants, who came in contact with astronauts following their return from space.”

She would later mentor undergraduate students in the program, guiding their professional and academic growth. She said the experience opened her eyes to the impact research has on drug development and innovative therapies for health conditions.

McDowell’s journey to pursue her passions led to a teaching job with Teach for America in 2020, where she taught middle and high school science for three years in her hometown of Fort Worth. The challenges of teaching during the height of the pandemic exposed her to inequities in education and health care.

“As an educator, I focused on equity-driven solutions in the classroom to increase access to a high-quality education for all students,” she said.

Many of her students were from underprivileged backgrounds, and McDowell noticed they often could not relate to the scenarios presented in learning concepts or test questions. She found ways to connect their lived experiences and apply their knowledge to complex concepts.

Although leaving the classroom was a difficult decision, McDowell is excited that her new journey to become a pharmacist encompasses equity on a higher level.

“Everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, has access to a pharmacist,” she said. “Pharmacy connects my love for chemistry and directly impacts patient outcomes.”

As a non-traditional student with real-world experience in her back pocket, she already has an advantage in knowing her strengths and passions.

“I think I would be most interested in becoming a clinical pharmacist because of the way that they use evidence-based practices in reviewing research to determine an action plan of drug therapy for a patient,” she said. “Or a research pharmacist working in the pre-clinical trial phase, investigating a possible new drug.”

As she dons her white coat for the first time with the Class of 2027 cohort this Friday, her husband, parents and extended family will stand by to cheer her on.

“The white coat ceremony symbolizes the beginning of my pharmacy journey and the work ahead of me in delivering equity-focused and culturally competent care to my future patients,” she said. “It also symbolizes the passing of the baton from the health care team that first sparked my interest in pharmacy and my charge to impart that spark to the next generation throughout my career.”

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