With every new understanding comes more questions to unravel
Parth Shah, PharmD, PhD, is an implementation and behavioral scientist, and an assistant professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA.
If you were to ask me who I am, I would not say a pharmacist. Well, technically I am a pharmacist, but I do not practice pharmacy. I am an implementation and behavioral scientist and part of the research faculty at a cancer research center. Intrigued? Let me tell you briefly how I got here.
Latitude to ask research questions
During my first year of pharmacy school at University of Southern California, I was an intern pharmacist at the outpatient pharmacy that provided care for patients at the university’s hospitals and clinics. The routine of pharmacy practice and providing patient care had its fulfilling moments. But as time ticked away, I found myself ruminating on the circumstances of the people who would come in with debilitating or irreversible diseases. What were the environmental, social, and economic conditions that put these individuals in such perilous situations? How do we prevent a person from needing to come into the pharmacy in the first place?
Whatever pharmacy training I was getting was not adequately preparing me to answer these questions. But these questions did lead me down a career path in public health where I found my vocation. I earned a PhD in Health Behavior at University of North Carolina and completed a fellowship in health services research. Armed with these new tools and experiences, my goal was to combine my background in pharmacy and behavioral science to create community-based interventions and programs that improve access to, opportunities for, and use of preventive services like vaccinations and cancer screenings, particularly for medically underserved communities. My research projects vary in scope, but they all have the underlying theme of addressing social determinants of health to prevent disease and promote well-being from a population perspective.
My day-to-day routine looks a lot like any other academic researcher: I supervise and lead my own public health studies, as well as collaborate with other researchers; develop research grants to fund my work; write papers filled with study findings for peer-reviewed journals and present at conferences; and mentor trainees. The unstructured nature of my work gives me the latitude to ask research questions I’m curious about and to pursue work that motivates me. It also led me to unexpected collaborations and opportunities, like working with the COVID-19 Prevention Network that oversees several of the COVID-19 vaccine trials conducted in the U.S. and globally.
The beauty of being a scientist
Careers in research can be arduous and exhausting, with long hours and years spent working on a single subject that one hopes will lead to scientific discoveries and societal contributions that positively impact millions of lives. Even though I am an early career investigator, I have already had countless failures with research studies and expect to have countless more. But this is also the beauty of being a scientist: Every failure is met with a new opportunity to reexamine the world and ask new questions, and with every new understanding more questions to unravel.