In the few years since Sen. Daniel Inouye announced his idea for a College of Pharmacy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and earmarked money for that purpose, the school has seen an explosion in interest from prospective students, growth in research initiatives, approval of new undergraduate and doctoral degrees, formation of Pacific partnerships and completion of plans for a permanent facility.
On May 14, 2011, the college celebrates a major landmark, awarding the doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) to its first class of 84 graduates.
“It’s not like the students were coming into a 100-year-old program where there is a certain amount of expectation,” says Dean John Pezzuto. “This first class really worked with us to get us to where we’re at, so we’re really proud of that.”
Pezzuto knows something of tradition. He was previously dean at the Purdue University College of Pharmacy. Founded in 1884, it is one of the nation’s top five schools and one of the largest pharmacy graduate programs in the nation. Visiting UH Hilo as a consultant, he was lured by the potential to create a great school to serve Hawaiʻi and the Pacific and signed on for a different kind of experience.
“The first year, I pretty much worked out of my car. It became a joke, but it was fairly true,” he says. “We had a couple offices rented in a USDA building, and that was it.” He quickly set about recruiting faculty and staff, finding additional space and securing accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.
“I had confidence from the beginning that everything would be fine, and a lot of people shared that confidence, but ACPE wasn’t one of them, I found out later,” he recalls. Students in the inaugural class received letters stating their acceptance was conditional upon accreditation for the college.
The school is on track to receive full accreditation this year. Pezzuto, characteristically, is looking beyond. His goal is to become a top-25 pharmacy college nationally. The timeline is a moving target, he says, but the objective could be met in 5–10 years.
In addition to the former USDA offices, the college has facilities at the University of Hawaiʻi’s former Waiākea Research Station and two modular buildings on the Hilo campus equipped with $2.5 million in state-of-the-art equipment to serve as research laboratories.
Construction of a permanent facility will require an estimated $66 million; when it’s built “depends on the Legislature and fundraising,” Pezzuto says. “The plans are absolutely spectacular. The site is selected; the plans are 100 percent complete. We could break ground in August if we line up the financing. Hopefully, the Legislature will be good to us.”
The college boasts nearly 100 faculty and staff and a student body of 355. “It’s all moving ahead at a good pace. But it’s a very competitive environment, so we have to do our best to compete for extramural funding,” Pezzuto says.
The student body is about half Hawaiʻi residents. Non-resident students hail from 30 states, plus Guam, American Samoa, Japan, Korea and Africa. “I don’t think there’s any other college of pharmacy with that sort of diversity,” the dean says.
Born in Manila, fourth-year student Paul Narciso came to the United States as a child and graduated from California State University–Northridge with a BA in biology and a minor in economics. The 34-year-old loves Hawaiʻi for the surfing, but had to learn to be more self-reliant being away from family.
He and other students have spent their final year performing rotations, which include assisting faculty in research and teaching, plus training in local hospitals and community pharmacies.
“We’re trying to develop an iTouch pharmacy application for first-year students so they can learn the top 200 pharmaceuticals,” he says. “That will help when they go into the pharmacy, because then they’ll know something about what each medication is for.”
The college admits 90 students a year. About 1,200 people express interest, up from about 400 the first year. In February 2011, the UH Board of Regents approved two new degrees. The bachelor of arts in pharmacy studies (BAPS) allows students who have met pre-pharmacy requirements but not yet earned a baccalaureate degree to receive it as they progress toward the professional PharmD.
“That’s added value for the program. It will make our program even more attractive to applicants,” Pezzuto says.
The new doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences, geared for students interested in becoming academics and scientists, is expected to serve about 50 students. “The PhD program will help us build our research and development,” Pezzuto says.
The research program is also growing quickly, with each faculty member doing projects. Pezzuto started a natural products program with support from the National Cancer Institute. “We have people working on malaria, people synthesizing drugs to beat tuberculosis. We have other people working on cardiotoxicity and how to avoid it.”
Hilo is a partner with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in the National Institutes of Health program called INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence), which brings about $1 million dollars here each year, putting pharmacy investigators on the fast track, he says. And the largest grant so far—a three-year $16.1 million Beacon Community Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’will improve healthcare services through high-technology platforms. Principal investigator for the grant is Karen Pellegrin, the pharmacy college’s director of strategic planning.
“That will create an electronic medical record for the Island of Hawaiʻi, using the Big Island as a model for the country,” Pezzuto says.
The school is also creating a pharmacy residency program based on Maui that will boost rural healthcare. Because, after all, the college was created to extend educational opportunities to and train workers for Hawaiʻi’s communities.