Student Spotlight: Michelle Kalu

Michelle Kalu is pursuing a PharmD and a PhD in Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics. Here, the Northridge, Calif. native reflects on what sparked her interest in pharmacy and how COVID-19 solidified her desire to go into infectious disease research.

What attracted you to the field of pharmacy? Any particular moment(s) that made you stop and think, “This is the path I want to take?”

My interest in pharmaceuticals started with drug advertisements on TV. I always wondered who made medications and why all the commercials listed several adverse effects but only highlighted two benefits of taking the medication. I wanted to know how medications affected patients and how I could help patients find better treatments for their diseases, so I followed my curiosity and eventually declared a pharmaceutical sciences major at UC Irvine. One particular moment that piqued my interest in pharmacy was when I traveled to Nigeria with my family. I learned more about my Nigerian heritage including how the villagers stayed healthy without the use of drugs. When they showed me the plants and herbs that the village used to treat illnesses, I wondered whether these plants could model alternative therapies and was inspired to study their effects on the body beyond established treatments. Knowing that I wanted to combine my curiosity and love for science to help treat patients solidified my path toward pharmacy.

Why did you choose the USC School of Pharmacy?

I chose to attend the USC School of Pharmacy because I was looking for a school that wanted to change the way our current healthcare system operates. I am passionate about integrating research as part of interdisciplinary healthcare to make optimal treatment decisions for patients. I recognized this same passion in several faculty members that I met with, and I loved that USC gave me the opportunity to pursue this passion. Being part of a close-knit community was also important to me because I believe that no one can live life and achieve his/her dreams on his/her own. The USC School of Pharmacy checked that box more than any of the other schools I was considering, so I decided to make Los Angeles home.

Why did you decide to pursue a PhD in addition to a PharmD?

I want to be well-trained in how to properly perform research. I love that research allows you to chase questions that no one knows the answers to. Plus, people can live better lives through the new knowledge that you might uncover. I am pursuing both degrees because I want to connect my research with what I learn in pharmacy school about medications and the treatment of diseases.

Tell us about your research.

My primary research interest is in infectious diseases, specifically multidrug-resistant bacterial infections. What I find interesting about infectious diseases is how quickly they adapt not only to the human body but also to the medications we try to use to eradicate them. I also love that it is truly translational in the sense that the basic science of how bacteria grow and adapt is relevant to the clinical science of how they cause disease in the human body. The knowledge gathered from infectious disease research can be directly applied to clinical practice.

How has COVID-19 affected your research? 

What we are seeing in the field of infectious diseases regarding COVID-19 is a much-needed acceleration of not only the research but also the public health policy integration. I am amazed at the togetherness of the scientific community regarding COVID-19. Data has been published and critiqued quickly. Labs found niches to study—from how the virus works on a molecular level and what medications can work against it to how to develop an effective vaccine. COVID-19 has solidified my desire to go into infectious diseases and has proven to me the impact research can make not only on therapy but also on public health policy.

What is one of the best/most memorable experiences you’ve had at the School of Pharmacy so far?

The most memorable experience I have had at USC School of Pharmacy so far was when I gave an older gentleman a flu shot at the Korean American Pharmacy Student Association (KAPSA) Fall 2018 Health Fair. He was so delighted that I made the experience painless for him. He turned to me after I finished counseling him and said that he was impressed by my professionalism and believed that I would make a great pharmacist. It was so encouraging to see that even though I had just started my training, I was already on the right path toward helping people and bringing smiles to their faces.

What are your career aspirations?

I aspire to become a practicing clinician-scientist as part of an interdisciplinary team that works together to provide optimal care to patients. I hope to contribute my medical and research knowledge to bridge the gap between basic scientists and clinicians. I aspire to train student pharmacists in how to work as part of an interdisciplinary team as well.

What is a fun fact about you that not many people know about?

In addition to my love for science, I am pretty artistic. I love to read, sing, dance, paint, draw, knit, crochet and watch films.