Pharmacy track opens door to Fulbright Fellowship and research in Africa

A unique course of study offered by UCSF's School of Pharmacy has led a strong student to realize his goal of doing research and helping patients overseas. It has helped him to win a prized Fulbright Fellowship to boot.

Foreign lands already were on Bryan McGee's travel menu before he came to UCSF. His experience working with underrepresented students at OASIS, the UC San Diego learning center, fueled his interest in diverse cultural experiences. This led to three months of intensive language study in Michoacan, Mexico. The experience fed his appetite for learning more about other cultures, even as he also decided to pursue a career in research after having earned degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and chemistry at UCSD.

In considering career options, McGee saw pharmacy as a way to build from a foundation in chemistry and to directly serve people as a health care provider.

In UCSF, McGee discovered a pharmacy school with three flexible curriculum tracks. Specifically, the pharmaceutical sciences track matched his goals. He could pursue research. At the same time, he could become a qualified clinical pharmacy practitioner. Furthermore, he could develop his interest in multicultural issues in pharmacy practice.

There is no lack of role models at UCSF. Francesca Aweeka, for one, is trained as a pharmacist, but does research too. Aweeka is the co-director of the pharmaceutical sciences pathway within the School of Pharmacy.

"Training as a pharmacist gives a deep and comprehensive understanding of drugs and how they work," she says. "If research needs to be done on the optimum use of a drug, arguably there is no better-equipped individual to pursue this research than a person who has gained this fundamental understanding through this program."

There are many faculty researchers within the school—as well as other UCSF faculty—with whom students can do research. But Aweeka's studies of drugs used to treat infection with HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—were right up McGee's alley.

After arriving at UCSF, McGee and fellow pharmacy students founded the Latino Association of Pharmacy Students. His growing understanding of Spanish, including a working knowledge of medical terminology, emboldened him to volunteer to spend part of a summer in Aranjuez, Spain, working in an AIDS hospice.

Following up on that experience, in Aweeka's lab McGee now has had an opportunity to study HIV drugs up close. The drugs he will be studying in Africa are the generic varieties most likely to be used in poor countries. The formulation in which the drugs are combined is new, and questions remain about how to best use them. With McGee's help, Ugandan investigators will be able to determine the optimum dosage and bio-equivalency of generics in comparison to standard formulations. In addition, McGee will be studying antimalarial drugs used in children in Uganda since little research has been done regarding how much to prescribe for children to achieve the same benefits but avoid drug toxicities.

McGee will be working closely with Aweeka's collaborator, David Bangsberg, a UCSF physician who transplanted his research interest in poverty and HIV treatment outcomes to Kampala, Uganda. Two Ugandan universities invited Bangsberg to help set up research programs in HIV treatment adherence and outcomes. Bangsberg also established the [Family Treatment Fund][link defunct as of August 22, 2012], so that more patients at the Ugandan clinic can receive anti-retroviral therapy. McGee is also working with UCSF investigators Drs. Diane Havlir, Grant Dorsey, and Phil Rosenthal of the HIV Positive Health Program on the malaria research.

McGee has recently arrived in Uganda as the recipient of an esteemed Fulbright Fellowship. Winning a Fulbright is an accomplishment for any student, but for pharmacy students it has heretofore been a very rare event. McGee also was named a winner of the highly competitive Fogarty Award, but because he could not accept both awards, he chose the Fulbright.

In Uganda, more than 600,000 people out of a population of more than 24 million are infected with HIV. Only about one of every 200 who are infected receives treatment. Therapy with brand-name drugs costs about US$300 monthly. That's about five times what a salaried civil servant in Uganda earns.

At one-tenth the cost, treatment with generics is still too expensive for many. And despite facing a life-threatening infection, some infected individuals balk at the idea of not receiving brand-name drugs. Studies of these generic drugs by Bangsberg, Aweeka and McGee are especially important in light of these concerns.

Several more School of Pharmacy faculty members have been expanding their research into global health, Aweeka notes, and so, future generations of UCSF pharmacy students may have many more opportunities to work abroad.

"There's a lot of flexibility," McGee says of the school's pharmaceutical sciences track. "If you put in the work, you're likely to get the results you're looking for. But it helps to think independently. The beauty of the program is that it lets you be an individual."

McGee says he was right to choose pharmacy.

"It's an experience of being at the forefront of a field that's changing, and it's very exciting," he says. "I don't know any other fields that are changing as quickly. There are expanding opportunities in industry, in clinical and community pharmacy, and in research."

Additional Information

Pathway Curriculum


School of Pharmacy, PharmD Degree Program

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.