Alumni Profiles Series: Nicole Kwiek

 March 3, 2021

Nicole Kwiek, Ph.D.

Dr. Nicole Kwiek received her Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Duke in 2005. Currently, she is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Division of Pharmacy Education and Innovation and the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Pharmacy at Ohio State University. She teaches pharmacology courses and leads all undergraduate educational initiatives in the college. Besides her teaching and administrative roles, she is also the co-founder and director of Generation Rx, a national educational program focused on promoting safe medication-taking practices and the dangers of prescription drug misuse to audiences of all ages. Previously, she launched the Generation Rx Laboratory at the Center for Science and Industry (COSI) as well the Pills, Potions, and Poisons summer science enrichment program, which both still thrive. She has received multiple distinguished teaching awards and is an inductee of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Academy of Pharmacology Educators.

Could you describe your job? 

I am a faculty member at Ohio State University, a large land-grant institution in Columbus, Ohio. I love academia, but I'm also unlike traditional pharmacology faculty in my work. At Ohio State, I primarily have two roles: I oversee all aspects of undergraduate programming in the College of Pharmacy as Assistant Dean, and I lead a national educational outreach program called Generation Rx. The common thread to my professional work focuses on using pharmacology as a context to engage learners of all ages. In fact, it was my graduate school teaching mentor at Duke, Dr. Rochelle D. Schwartz-Bloom, who taught me the innate power of drug topics as a teaching context.

Our College of Pharmacy offers a highly unique undergraduate program in the Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences (BSPS). In addition to traditional training in chemistry, physiology, biology, and many other disciplines, our students learn how to apply all of this science into understanding drug action, design, and therapeutic outcomes. It’s a very special experience for these students to access medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, and clinical therapeutics content at the pre-graduate/professional level, and almost all go on to awesome clinical and research careers. Through the years, I developed and taught many courses in the program, and through these opportunities, I became a strong advocate for the BSPS program.

In 2014, our college’s new dean saw potential in transforming this already great program into a pre-eminent training path for anyone planning to work with drugs someday. Whether a student wanted to be a scientist, a pharmacist, a physician, a veterinarian, a nurse practitioner, or more – we felt strongly that the BSPS program would be a great avenue to launch their careers. He asked me to lead a curricular revision, which ended up leading to my being appointed director of the program and then my current role as Assistant Dean. We were not only able to completely overhaul that curriculum but also create new courses that teach Ohio State students from all disciplines. We also launched a Pharmaceutical Sciences minor program, and interest in our coursework grew. Now we have nearly 700 students formally engaging with our major and minor programs and thousands of students enrolled in our coursework. In this work, I lead an incredible team of people to help our program continue to grow and innovate. It has been such a fun adventure.

Additionally, I lead Generation Rx, an educational outreach program focused on medicine misuse. Everything we create/learn/do at Ohio State as a land-grant institution has an expectation that we can translate our findings back into the communities in a meaningful and productive way. It should never be one-directional work – the most genuine engagement project involves working with community stakeholders as genuine partners to effectively tackle an issue. In my postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Schwartz-Bloom, I learned about effective outreach and engagement strategies, but it was wonderful to come to an institution like Ohio State, where there is such a commitment to this community-based work. The university expects this effort and values it.

How was Generation Rx founded?

Just as I was starting in my faculty position, my new colleague Dr. Ken Hale and I began to see troubling data about prescription opioid misuse in this country. Unprecedented prescribing of these opioids resulted in unprecedented patient consumption and subsequent misuse– and some of these behaviors were amplified by a misunderstanding of the safety and addiction potential of these medicines. People thought they could take more than prescribed, take others’ medicines, or take them for reasons other than prescribed without harm. Looking back, we were at the onset of the opioid epidemic, which we continue to fight to this day; however, beyond opioids, Dr. Hale and I understood that education around safe medication-taking behaviors was severely lacking in this country. And as a pharmacologist, I could easily make the scientific connection between misuse effects – regardless of whether you were dealing with prescription opioids or illicit opioids like heroin.

And that was the start! As trained educators, Dr. Hale and I, with our students, began to create best-practice educational tools to teach this important information to people of all ages. Generation Rx began as a little learning collaborative with students and has evolved in so many ways. We started with local community presentations; then we transitioned into building free toolkits and resources online to help people to learn how to safely use medicine and the dangers of prescription drug misuse. Now we have an entire suite of evidence-informed educational resources and training efforts for audiences across the lifespan (i.e., elementary students, high school students, university students, adults, and older adults), and we work with state-level agencies across the country to support this education.

One fun direction the project took? We launched the first-of-its-kind Generation Rx Laboratory, at the Center for Science and Industry (COSI), a nationally renowned science museum. At its core, it is a drug education laboratory. We use hands-on pharmacology experiments to teach COSI visitors (aged 5 to 95!) about drug science and medication safety. We deploy a medical robot (‘Bob the Abra Cadaver’) that simulates physiological drug responses. He looks like a human with a pulse, blood pressure, and eyes that dilate – and guests can administer medicines in simulations to treat his medical conditions while also learning pharmacology principles. To my knowledge, this remains the only museum-based pharmacology education laboratory in the country. If you had told me that I could use my graduate training to launch a research lab within a science museum to teach five-year-olds about medicines, I would have never believed you.

To lead an interdisciplinary program like Generation Rx, do you work with people in different backgrounds?

Yes, I lead a team of ten outstanding people of all different backgrounds. We have pharmacologists and scientists on our team who developed a love of instructional design and community engagement just like I did. We have pharmacists who bring a clinical understanding of how patients should be using medicines. We have community specialists who know how to best bring people together to do evidence-based drug prevention work. We also have a communications expert, who helps to push content out to the public and leverage social media in the process. Importantly, this team is a most creative, collegial, and genuinely likable group of professionals, and the work that they create is just outstanding. Evidence for the quality of the the project’s resources lies in their usage; since 2010, over 85,000 facilitators have delivered Generation Rx content to millions of people across the country.

What's your favorite part of your work?

Hands down, it’s the people. Whether you're at Duke, here at Ohio State, or any university for that matter, you really get the chance to work with the best of the best. I love that the work we do with Generation Rx is different, and it's always changing. We have projects working with fraternities and sororities, and then we'll go to schools to help them to take message to their kindergarteners and middle schoolers.  We work with science centers and school nurses, 4H and Girl Scouts. Every day is a new adventure.

But in addition to the faculty/staff, you get to work with the brightest and best students too. To get a chance to work alongside these little stars of energy and ambition – I feel so fortunate everyday.

How did you come to this career path?

I grew up in a very rural part of southeast Ohio. I received my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry at Ohio University and matriculated into the Pharmacology program at Duke in 2000 right after graduation. During my graduate training, I discovered pretty quickly that I did not want to be a traditional bench scientist when I “grew up”. I liked being in the lab, but I loved the educational side of things. While I was searching for teaching opportunities (which, as a funded student with no obligation to teach, was not easy), I learned about Dr. Schwartz-Bloom, the department’s teaching guru. She became my most formative teaching mentor, and I learned so much about leveraging pharmacology topics in educational innovation. I served as a TA for her “Pharmacology: Drug Actions and Reactions” undergraduate course, teaching a couple of lectures but falling completely in love with the classroom environment. During my fourth year, Dr. Schwartz-Bloom created a new residential summer course for high school students in the Duke Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP).  Lecturing to high school students all day is impossible and completely ineffective, so we deployed a whole suite of engaging learner-centered pedagogies (i.e., experiments, games, debates, etc.) every day for three weeks. To this day, this crash course in teaching stands as the most important experience for me to develop a robust instructional skillset. The next year I ended up teaching by myself a whole section of the undergraduate pharmacology course, and voila – I was officially a university educator! I feel immensely lucky to have been offered those opportunities during my graduate career.

Additionally, Dr. Schwartz-Bloom taught me the utility of pharmacology in K-12 science learning. Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, she led trail-blazing work in developing and evaluating pharmacology-centered high school science curricula. We showed that students better learned biology and chemistry concepts when contextualized in pharmacology applications. For example, you could learn about acid-base chemistry by talking about vinegar or baking soda…or you could learn those same principles by talking about cocaine ionization and the addiction potential of different administration routes. It's the same principle. That work helped me transfer my own thinking about how we can leverage pharmacology to ‘hook’ science learners.

I would be remiss to not mention my Ph.D. thesis mentor Dr. Timothy Haystead, who was pivotal to my training. With his hands-off, “figure it out” mentoring style, he helped me to develop as a scientific thinker and problem solver. He supported his trainees to present their work at international conferences, and the impact that those presentations had on this small-town Ohio girl was transformative. And most importantly, he completely supported me in my teaching endeavors when he didn’t need to do so. In addition to all of this professional support, Dr. Haystead also hosted amazing people in his lab. I ended up meeting my best friends, including my husband (Dr. Jesse Kwiek), in that lab.

What career advice would you give to current graduate students?

The advice I give is, “Don’t be afraid to blaze your own trail.” I came into graduate school thinking that my only two career options were academia—a classic tenure-track faculty member, where I oversee a classic basic science team—or the pharmaceutical industry. I have had the great fortune to pursue what I loved, not what I thought I had to do. In doing so, I have been able to craft this amazingly fulfilling career in the process. I just keep pivoting towards the fun stuff, and nothing ever gets boring.

What is your suggestion on how to get exposure to different career options in graduate school?

When you're in graduate school, it is a real opportunity to put yourself out there in a hundred different ways. Identify those things that you are interested in, even if you only have a hint of an interest. Then, just try them, and don’t be afraid to fail. This is a time for you to make mistakes and learn from them.

For example, when I was teaching that first pharmacology course to undergraduates, I was really interested in service-learning pedagogy – a technique where students partner with a community organization to do projects that tackle real-life issues. That's a pretty ambitious teaching technique, since I needed to connect with community organizations and make sure that students are doing the right things in the right way. I was extremely naive, but this was my chance to practice something to see if I liked it - to try and fail completely - because it wasn’t going to affect my tenure, my job, my compensation, or any opportunities that would come. In the end, I loved it. I’d suggest giving yourself the grace to fail so that you can better understand where you can succeed.


Yihan Liao
Yihan Liao

Ph.D. candidate, Pharmacology and Cancer Biology

Yihan Liao is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. She studies osteoarthritis associated cartilage degradation and pain in the laboratory of Dr. Matthew J. Hilton. Yihan enjoys translational research and participated in the Duke Scholars in Molecular Medicine Program, where she gained more clinical experience. In her future career, she wants to continue her passion for working in healthcare by connecting the bench and bedside.