Facilities hold pharmacy school back
Pharmacy has changed a lot since the Coker Life Sciences Building was finished in 1976, and that worries Joe DiPiro.
Over the past 20 years, the executive dean of the South Carolina College of Pharmacy has seen the field move away from simply filling prescriptions and toward caring for patients, and he’s seen pharmacy education change a lot, too.
Walking through a teaching lab last week, DiPiro sketched out a vision for a new setup: a flexible, modular design and more space for group work, patient simulations and immunization practice.
"To us, it looks very outdated. It’s not very functional for pharmacy training," DiPiro said, standing in the crowded lab as students rushed around him. "It’s the ideal for 20 years ago."
He’s not sure how much renovating existing labs would cost, but he’s worried the pharmacy school’s old facilities are being outpaced by its peers — Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, Maryland and Auburn.
Among them, DiPiro said, USC’s pharmacy facilities rank dead last.
"They’re 10 steps ahead," DiPiro said.
When a team from the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education came last fall, it took note of the building’s limitations and reported that they would likely impinge upon the college’s success.
"Given its current physical facilities, the College is likely to struggle in achieving its goal of moving into the Top 10 tier of all pharmacy programs," the report said.
The report also recommended that the college write "a comprehensive facilities master plan."
The college is responsible for writing such a plan, according to Provost Michael Amiridis, and it’s currently finalizing one, according to DiPiro, but so far, top university officials haven’t seen it.
Much of the struggle in improving the college’s reputation and ranking is in recruitment.
That’s been a problem when Coker and the college’s building at the Medical University of South Carolina are pitted against state-of-the-art facilities at its peers throughout the Southeast, DiPiro said.
"I know sometimes we’ve lost out on candidates," he said.
Once they get here, faculty, including the college’s five SmartState endowed chairs, have run into a number of issues, from inadequate labs to delayed upgrades.
Mike Wyatt, an associate professor of pharmacy, knows those problems well.
Wyatt conducts research in a lab designed for teaching, not research, and he said it’s not well suited for working efficiently or comfortably; it was designed for short class sessions, not full days of work.
Like DiPiro, he’s making do, but walking through his lab, he points out issues with the space.
A safety shower doesn’t have a drain because Coker was built before those protective measures were required, which makes its required monthly tests a hassle. There’s no space for the ultra low-temperature freezer that holds human tissue and "decades and decades" of work, Wyatt said, so it sits next to his office door. And for years, when Coker has lost electricity, the university has had to scramble to protect those samples because it doesn’t have backup power — the building’s not wired for it, DiPiro said.
USC’s fallback: setting up a generator in an adjacent parking lot and running a series of extension cords through the building. It pulled together a similar setup last year when the adjacent Jones Physical Science Center had an outage.
"Having backup power is an absolute necessity," Wyatt said.
Some of those problems should be remedied this year, said Jeff Lamberson, Facilities’ director of design and construction.
By the end of the year, Lamberson expects USC will have installed emergency generators, and over the summer, USC will spend $1.15 million to renovate about half of the seventh floor, Lamberson said — a project that should be done by November.
The latter project will house the SmartState-endowed translational cancer therapeutics center and will upgrade labs and offices for the five faculty, 12 staff members and 10 students associated with it, Lamberson said.
But that’s only a handful of the college’s 36 professors and 440 students in Columbia.
Even as faculty are making do, DiPiro said, they’re losing sight of the college’s main focus — pharmacy.
Randy Rowan, the dean of the college’s Columbia campus, spends about 10 hours each week dealing with building issues and Facilities’ bureaucracy, according to DiPiro.
"(We’re) having to spend time and effort on facilities rather than the science," DiPiro said.
USC hasn’t drawn up any specific plans to update the college’s Columbia campus classrooms or labs, but the university knows it will need to help pay to outfit a classroom for distance education, according to Amiridis.
Last year, the Office of the Provost and the college split the cost of updating one of pharmacy’s two main classrooms at a total cost of about $600,000, DiPiro said. He’d like to see the second room updated soon — possibly next year, he said.
For now, the college’s classroom space is mostly comprised of theater-style rooms that DiPiro said were ill-suited for distance teaching, a key component of its curriculum.
Courses have been shared between its campuses in Columbia and in Charleston at the Medical University of South Carolina since the college was formed in 2004. It also offers classes at the Greenville Hospital System.
To teach in two separated classrooms, professors need spaces with plenty of outlets, individual push-to-talk microphones for students and a short distance to the back of the room, DiPiro said.
The outdated spaces aren’t limited to USC, he said.
They’ve presented a problem in Charleston, where the college is housed in a building from the 1930s that DiPiro said reminded him of his time in grade school years ago.
Those issues have mostly been resolved, he said, because MUSC assigned the college a pair of classrooms elsewhere on its campus and updated one of its training labs.
In Columbia, faculty and researchers are doing their best, but, Wyatt said, issues with the building are impacting their work.
"You have to do what you have to do," Wyatt said, "but it certainly makes a difference."
Originally published in The Daily Gamecock, Feb. 6, 2013