Q&A with Dr. Sarah Lawrence, Pharmacist and Educator

By Crissey Tait

Dr. Sarah M. Lawrence obtained her Bachelor of Arts in political science (magna cum laude) and her Master of Arts in higher education (Graduate Dean’s Citation) from the University of Louisville. After working in the field of nonprofit administration for several years, she decided to enter the profession of pharmacy. Dr. Lawrence earned her Doctor of Pharmacy from Sullivan University College of Pharmacy in 2011. Upon graduation, Dr. Lawrence completed a PGY-1 Residency in community practice at Sullivan University.

After residency, Dr. Lawrence worked as an independent consultant pharmacist providing Medication Therapy Management services to retirees and gained an appointment as Adjunct Assistant Professor of pharmacology in the Family and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner program at Spalding University. In 2013 she began working in the corporate headquarters of PharMerica, one of the largest providers of institutional pharmacy services in the US, first as Utilization Manager, and then as Manager of Formulary and Therapeutics. In that role, she oversaw per diem formulary management, the Pharmacy & Therapeutics committee, clinical initiatives, and both internal and external educational programs, including PharMerica’s Clinical Geriatric Symposium.

In her current role, Dr. Lawrence serves as Director of the Pharmacy Technician program and Assistant Professor of Clinical and Administrative Sciences at Sullivan University College of Pharmacy. She was recently elected to the prestigious post of president-elect of the national Pharmacy Technician Educators Council (PTEC). After a year acting as president-elect, she will assume the presidency in 2019.

Dr. Lawrence served as a member of the senior management team of Student Doctor Network (SDN) from 2011 to 2013 in the role of Editor in Chief. During this time, she coordinated front page publications and content. Her work was published under the username “All4MyDaughter”. From 2011 to 2015 she coordinated partnerships with various national organizations and implemented a strategic vision for developing new partnerships.

What led you to the pharmacy field?

I was working as the executive director of a small non-profit agency that ended up closing for budget reasons. I decided that I wanted to make a change in my career direction and researched different options in the health care field. I’d always been interested in and enjoyed learning about how drugs work in the body, so pharmacy seemed like a good fit. I did some shadowing and found that pharmacy was a match for my interests. I enrolled in pre-requisite courses, did well, and gained admission to pharmacy school.

What has your educational and career journey been like?

After high school, I enrolled in the University of Louisville and studied political science, graduating in 1997 with my BA. I worked in the non-profit sector for two years, in an agency that provided emergency financial and food assistance to families. In 1999 I decided to return to U of L to complete a Master of Arts in Higher Education. I graduated in 2001 and took a job as the Executive Director of a small non-profit education agency. In 2005 I decided to become a pharmacist and enrolled in pre-pharmacy courses. I entered the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy in 2006 and completed my first two years of pharmacy school. After a family tragedy in 2008, I withdrew from pharmacy school and was directionless for a time. I had met the Dean of Sullivan University College of Pharmacy through my work with the Student Doctor Network, and he invited me to transfer to SUCOP to finish my PharmD. I enrolled at SUCOP in 2009 and earned my Doctor of Pharmacy in 2011. After graduation, I completed a one-year residency in Community Pharmacy, also at SUCOP. I finished residency in 2012 and worked for a time as an independent consultant pharmacist. In 2013 I accepted a position as a pharmacist working in the headquarters of a large long-term care pharmacy corporation, and in 2016 I transitioned into my current role as Assistant Professor of Clinical and Administrative Sciences and Director of the Pharmacy Technician program at Sullivan University.

What has surprised you the most about your journey?

When I decided to go to pharmacy school, I assumed I would work at a retail pharmacy or some other traditional practice site. My career has taken a completely different, and very pleasant direction. I love being an educator.

What drew you to become active with Pharmacy Technician Educators Counsel (PTEC)?

When I accepted my current position as Director of Sullivan University’s Pharmacy Technician program, I knew that I needed support from more experienced pharmacy technician educators. A colleague told me about PTEC, and when I joined, I found that there were plenty of opportunities for me to learn from others in the field, but also for me to demonstrate my leadership and put my skills to work for others. I have learned so much from my fellow technician educators and hope that I have been helpful to them as well.

What does your new position as the president-elect of the national PTEC entail?

The year as president-elect allows me time to serve on the board and develop my leadership skills before I assume the presidency in 2019. The president-elect works on several initiatives, including membership development and social media. I am also interested in developing the skills of our current members in scholarship by encouraging educators to present at our annual meeting and to take part in research and poster presentations.

What do you hope to accomplish through this new position?

I hope to develop my leadership skills and put my talents to work to benefit my fellow educators. I also want to play an active role in the national conversation about pharmacy technician training and advancement. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to step into a leadership role on a national level.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

I arrive at my office between 8 AM and 9 AM. Many mornings I have class first thing in the morning, but if not teaching I work on projects in my office. My time is split between teaching, administrative tasks, scholarship, and service, though I don’t do each of those things every day. I have lots of meetings throughout the day. Those often wind down by late afternoon, so I spend that time to answer emails and continue working on projects. I try to leave daily by 6 PM, though I am not always successful.

What has aided in your success?

I think my previous career in non-profit management and my educational background have been very helpful to me in my pharmacy career, both in my corporate job and in my current role in academia. But I think the biggest thing that has helped me is other people—people who took a chance on me, saw my potential, and were willing to help mentor me. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the people who have helped me along the way.

Can you explain your passion for pharmacy education? What is the importance and value of this? Where did this passion originate and how has it affected your professional and personal life?

I have been involved in education at nearly every job I’ve held since my undergraduate days. Sometimes that education has taken place one-on-one with clients, sometimes it’s been for internal stakeholders, and sometimes it’s been for an external audience. I discovered that not only do I love the act of standing up in front of a group and teaching, I also really enjoy organizing educational activities and planning a course of study to accomplish a particular goal or purpose. In my current role, I manage all aspects of the pharmacy technician program at Sullivan University. I make sure we are complying with all accreditation requirements and preparing students to pass the certification exam. Figuring out what fits into each individual course and how the courses work together to form a cogent program is really interesting and fun for me.

What are your recommendations to build leadership skills in one’s profession and specifically in the pharmacy field?

Be involved! It’s critical to become involved in professional organizations, and there are many pharmacy professional organizations to choose from. Ideally, involvement starts while a student is still in school. I believe that helps develop a spirit of lifelong service and learning. Once one becomes involved in an organization or other group, there is no shortage of opportunities to get involved. Leadership doesn’t just mean being President. It includes working on committees, helping at conferences, making presentations, and helping recruit new members, etc. There are so many ways to serve and build skills for leadership.

How important is networking in your career in order to be able to affect change as a leader?

Networking is critical in pharmacy, not just for leaders, but for practitioners as well. Networking is how you find the best jobs and people to collaborate with. For leaders, networking is an important strategic behavior. I treat every contact I make as an opportunity to learn something, at minimum. But I can’t tell you how many times I have been able to leverage my contacts for something I was working on. As an example, last spring we had a career discussion panel in one of my PharmD courses. The panelists were mainly contacts from my past—one was my former boss, another was someone I’d interviewed with, one was a former classmate, two were people with whom I’d done business at a previous job. That I was able to put that group together was a testament to the importance of maintaining good relationships with everyone you encounter professionally.

What is the importance of education throughout a pharmacist’s or technician’s career? After the initial training, is continuing education required and/or recommended?

Lifelong learning is a critical part of every pharmacist or pharmacy technician’s career. All pharmacists and all certified pharmacy technicians (CPhT) are required to complete accredited Continuing Education credits annually to maintain their license or certification. Many pharmacists have advanced certifications in specialty areas. For instance, my clinical specialty is Geriatrics and I am a Board Certified Geriatric Pharmacist. There are specific continuing education requirements that one must meet to maintain board certification. Beyond the need to maintain licenses and certifications, continuing education is necessary just to stay current in the profession. Pharmacy is a rapidly changing field, with new drugs coming to market daily and clinical guidelines and laws that are updated frequently. Developing a spirit of lifelong learning and inquiry is an important part of being an engaged professional.

Is there a certain area of education that you are most passionate about? Why?

I am very passionate about pharmacy technician education and training because I think it’s an area that has been somewhat overlooked historically. We have standardized training and credentialing for pharmacists, but no national standard regarding the content and duration of technician training. Pharmacy technicians are critical to the profession of pharmacy, and I feel that pharmacists should be advocating for their education and advancement. That’s why I enjoy my job at Sullivan University so much. I get to work with both pharmacy technician students and pharmacy students, and affect the education of both groups.

How do you recommend a pharmacy student or pharmacist learn more about the education, leadership, and administrative aspects of pharmacy?

I think involvement in the profession and in professional organizations is key to learning about these aspects of pharmacy. There are organizations at the local, state, and national level to choose from. Pharmacy students can choose rotations during their last year that focus on these topics as well. One could consider doing an academic rotation with a faculty member or an administrative rotation with a pharmacy district manager or other industry leader.

You completed a community pharmacy residency. Can you expound on what community pharmacy means and its importance?

Community pharmacy is by far the most visible sector of pharmacy and employs about 2/3 of the pharmacists and technicians in practice in the US. Community pharmacy includes chain retail (Walgreens, CVS), grocery store (Publix, Kroger), and independently owned pharmacies. My residency also included training in ambulatory care, which is a clinic setting staffed by pharmacists and other professionals. I worked in both an anticoagulation clinic and a diabetes management clinic during residency.

In your perspective, what is the biggest problem in pharmacy education currently?

I worry about the amount of debt that students incur to obtain their PharmD and the tightening job market for pharmacists. I think it’s important to be mindful when borrowing for school and to have a plan for repayment upon graduation, and to cultivate contacts during school to maximize one’s chances of obtaining a job quickly after licensure.

What advice do you have for balancing work and personal life?

Know that you won’t always be successful at striking a balance. There are days where I don’t spend as much time at home with my family as I’d like. But there are also days where the flexibility of my job allows me to be away from the office and participate in events at my kids’ school or extracurricular activities. If those days mostly balance each other out, I’m happy. I try not to criticize myself too much or set unrealistic expectations. My other piece of advice here is to make sure that you have outlets—things that you enjoy doing and make time to do them when you can. Even if it’s just reading a book or playing a game, everyone needs downtime.

What do you enjoy most about your profession?

I have always enjoyed the scientific aspects of pharmacy—learning about the drugs and how they work in the body. I think most of us entered the profession because we wanted to help people, and that’s another love of mine. I also love my role as an educator. I get to help both pharmacy technician students and Doctor of Pharmacy students learn what they need to know to become active, contributing members of our profession. It’s an incredible privilege.

What is your vision for pharmacy education?

Pharmacy education and educators should be on the forefront of advancing pharmacy practice beyond the traditional model of dispensing a product and getting reimbursed for it. Pharmacists have outstanding scientific and clinical training and we should constantly be looking for opportunities to put that to work to serve patients.

What advice would you give students who are wanting to pursue a career in pharmacy?

My advice is the same as I’d give a student contemplating any other career. Get as much information as you can before you decide. Talk to people currently practicing. Make sure you get the perspective of new practitioners as well as veterans. Talk to some students who are already in pharmacy school. Do some shadowing. Look for mentors and people who can help you meet your goal. I’d also recommend getting a job in pharmacy both to try out the profession, but also to gain valuable skills and to network. Research different career options and consider which one is the best fit for you. Pharmacy is very diverse and there are lots of opportunities, if you know how to access them.

About the Author

Crissey Tait holds a Master of Public Health with a Global Health specialization and is a Certified Health Education Specialist. She has worked in Rwanda and Haiti developing health programs and is an adjunct professor teaching environmental health and emergency management. She is a native Floridian who is passionate about travel, infectious disease, and swimming.

One thought on “Q&A with Dr. Sarah Lawrence, Pharmacist and Educator

  • September 28, 2018 at 8:15 am
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    Excellent job Dr. Lawrence. I am so proud of you. Despite the horrible family tragedy you did not stop thinking big. You are my inspiration. I am so blessed for have known you. Best luck,
    James & Florence Evanson.

    Reply

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