Holly Vogel - December 21st 2020 - 4 min read

Hello Brilliant Minds,

How do you know what to study in University!? If you are someone in high school thinking about going to post-secondary, it can be a bit overwhelming deciding what field of study you want to pursue - nevermind what career you want in the future! I am here to tell you a bit about my story as a University of Alberta student that ended up in a program I did not know was an option.

If you are someone who loves a biology and chemistry class, then pharmacology could be an option for you! I am currently in my final year of the pharmacology program at the University of Alberta. Throughout high school, like many, I was confused about what career options in science were available outside of medicine and how I could combine my passion for helping people with my interest in how drugs affect the body. I applied to the UofA to the General Science program because I was someone who enjoyed the sciences in high school and thought I would continue with that passion in post-secondary. It was difficult not knowing exactly what career I wanted in the future when lots of my friends would talk about their laid out career plan.

My biggest piece of advice for high school students is not to worry about having a plan and instead exploring all there is to offer and only then deciding what fascinates you. We are all on our own paths, and it is important not to be distracted by the people around you who may already know their path.

It was in the last semester of my second year of university that I decided to take a pharmacology class. To be honest, I only took this class because someone told me the class had a really good professor, and it was an easy class if you could memorize drugs. Halfway through the semester, I asked the professor after class some questions about the program and whether or not I was too late in my degree to apply. He was helpful and encouraging about the program and supplied me with all of the information I needed about how to apply and where to find more information. I ended up applying to the program a couple of weeks later and was accepted!

So now, I find myself graduating in a few months with a degree in a field of study that I never knew existed just two years prior. Here, I want to discuss what a degree in pharmacology actually entails in the hopes of providing another option for a science-loving high school student like I was, or maybe simply a little insight into what the program is for people who have never heard of it.

First point, pharmacy and pharmacology are two very different degrees, and a degree in pharmacology will not allow you to work at a pharmacy.

Pharmacology students graduate with a BSc in Pharmacology which is a 4-year program, whereas Pharmacy students graduate with a PharmD and it takes 6 years to complete due to the two years of general university courses a student must take in order to be able to apply to the program.

Pharmacology is defined as a branch of medicine concerned with the uses, effects, and modes of action of drugs. What drew me to the program is the ability to gain expertise in a variety of areas rather than being restricted to a single topic of study. Courses such as physiology, anatomy, cell biology, neuroscience, chemistry, statistics, calculus, biochemistry, in addition to pharmacology courses creates the unique ability to tailor your degree to your interests. Sure, you can learn how blood flows through the cardiovascular system and memorize the chambers of the heart; but how much better would it be to understand this system and see how it goes haywire in real-life diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure) or what happens when someone has a stroke or heart attack due to a blood clot. Knowing how these diseases occur in the cardiovascular system and the mechanism by which it occurs, we are able to inhibit it using drugs which offers a deeper layer of understanding.

Problem-solving is also a big part of pharmacology. Say that a patient was taking a drug called Warfarin in order to inhibit blood clotting because it is able to reduce the amount of Vitamin K available for the body to use to make clotting factors, which are what makes the blood clot. For someone who is at risk of forming a blood clot, this is a critical treatment because of the possibility of a blood clot forming in a blood vessel supplying blood to their brain or heart, resulting in a stroke or heart attack, respectively. The problem solving comes in when you learn about how to properly treat the patient knowing that Warfarin, the drug stopping the blood from clotting, interacts with other medications the patient may be taking such as an antidepressant, antibiotic, pain medication such as Advil, Tylenol, or aspirin, or even something as simple as green tea. Pharmacologists have to think about possible drug interactions and whether it will put the patient at risk.

So, now that you are armed with the understanding of the field of pharmacology, I hope it has made you realize that there is more to science than just the individual fields of study chemistry, biology, math etc.; that pharmacology is not the same as pharmacy and that the next time you decide to take something like Advil (pain reliever) or Benadryl (allergy medication), that you pause and think about how amazing it is that such a small object is able to have such widespread effects inside you!