USC graduate students Vanessa Poirier and Hirali Patel are both operations immunization chairs for their respective organizations and have spent the semester organizing flu clinics for students, and their research experience led one of them to help in Dr. Phillip Buckhaults' Saliva Assay Free Expedited (SAFE) testing lab at USC.
Poirier is a second-year student in the Pharm.D. program and is the operations immunization chair for the Student National Pharmaceutical Association (SNPhA). Patel is in her third year of pharmacy school and holds the same position for the American Pharmacists Association (APhA).
As chair, Patel can advocate for immunizations and plan a few additional events each year. Patel and Poirier worked with Dr. Amy Grant, associate dean for student affairs and diversity and assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy, and the Student Health Center to make the flu clinic available for everyone this year.
In previous years, the flu clinic was only available for one day to the students and faculty in the College of Pharmacy. This year, with extra work and collaboration, the flu clinic was hosted at the Student Health Center and was open to everyone due to the extra time and space, as the clinic ran for three days.
Patel said she hoped with the flu clinic being open to everyone, more students would get the vaccine and be safe during these times as COVID-19 cases rise and flu season begins.
“I would highly recommend students get their flu shot just to be on the safe side,” Patel said. “I totally understand if they don’t want to get it, that’s a personal opinion, but, as I said before, if someone comes up to me and asks me about my opinion on the flu vaccine, I definitely advocate for it.”
In total, 183 flu shots were administered by third-year graduate pharmacy students, or P3 students, who receive their certifications to administer these immunizations through the APhA. This gave the P3 students the opportunity to practice administering immunization shots.
“They were all a little nervous at the beginning, but they had so much good feedback,” Poirier said. “I was there every day at the flu clinic, and I hear people saying, ‘Wow, you did a great job, I didn't feel it at all,’ so it was really cool to see.”
James Orban, a member of APhA and President of Kappa Psi, one of the three pharmacy fraternities, holds a bachelor's in biology from Stony Brook University and is a third-year student in the College of Pharmacy. Orban volunteered at the flu clinic and said it helped "build that confidence."
“Faculty members came in, some of my teachers came in, so that was really nice to be a part of and just push for that global vaccination,” Orban said.
Patel was the student who got the opportunity to administer the flu shot to President Bob Caslen and was awarded the coin of excellence for her work at the flu clinic.
“Every year a College of Pharmacy student usually gets the opportunity to give the president his shot,” Patel said. “I was kind of nervous at first, but then once I got in there, and I was talking to him, I was fine."
Patel said she hopes to become a cardiology pharmacist and help people with cardiovascular problems by advising patient teams on which type and how much medicine to give to patients.
"I knew it was going to be something in the medical field just because I have the passion to help people," Patel said.
When Buckhaults' SAFE lab began to focus on examining COVID-19 testing methods in March, Poirier decided to get involved.
“[Buckhaults] asked us if anyone in the lab wanted to help with kind of just researching and playing around with different testing methods," Poirier said. "He really had a goal from the beginning to figure out a way that we could test the entire school the cheapest way, the most efficient way possible."
Poirier worked in a biology research lab at Harvard University before she found her path in pharmacy. She said lab work made her feel a little disconnected from outside connections.
"I kind of realized that I was lacking the personal interactions and connections that could come with a career because I was, you know, just working in a lab," Poirier said.
Poirier was one of the only students working in the lab full time over the summer.
"[We were] testing the difference between nasal swabs and saliva samples to show that saliva actually was just as efficient, if not better, at testing for the presence of COVID,” Poirier said.
Poirier's position as operations immunizations chair of the SNPhA focuses heavily on advocacy and engagement with the public. Poirier and the president of SNPhA made calls to congressmen and representatives to inform them on the importance of vaccines and explain to them where they're needed.
“We really focus on serving the underserved,” Poirier said. “Especially with COVID, [SNPhA members] have a special opportunity this year, you know, explaining why we need to do the things that we do."