By maximising her students’ work exposure and mentorship opportunities, pharmaceutical science lecturer Dr Maisha Foo assures them of their choice of courses and career paths.
Dr Maisha Foo, Temasek Polytechnic, President's Award for Teachers 2022 Finalist
“Pharmaceutical science knowledge is translatable to many other allied health careers and even research. Students should be aware of all the possibilities and how well different jobs match up to their unique passions.”
When Dr Maisha Foo joined Temasek Polytechnic as a lecturer, she was as fresh as they come, having neither teaching nor work experience.
She had just completed her PhD in pharmacology, which she dived into after obtaining her degree at National University of Singapore. At her first lecture to her pharmaceutical science students, she felt slightly embarrassed at having delivered a “rather mechanical” session, she recalls with a chuckle with a tinge of regret.
Was she daunted? No, because of what she had seen on the students’ faces. What they were looking for was not just information but direction, and she felt inspired to help with that.
“Pharmaceutical science knowledge is translatable to many other allied health careers and even research,” says Maisha, who in her own education journey had nurtured her fascination for chemical compounds, big data, research, and mentoring. Having had a clear sense of self and direction, which led her to her dream job as a pharmaceutical science lecturer, she was ready to encourage the same in her students.
“Students should be aware of all the possibilities and how well different jobs match up to their unique passions.”
That was nearly 10 years ago. Maisha has since been committing herself to providing students with as much signposting and work exposure as she can, so they can make informed career choices. She also networks extensively with industry to introduce more options for projects, internships, job offers and knowledge transfer.
In this way, her students can better understand the industries related to pharmaceutical science, and see how their skills and interests best fit with industry needs, she explains; they will not only find jobs more easily but find jobs that they want.
Exposure to real and retail environments
Since 2017, when Maisha was made Course Chair, she has been incorporating work opportunities into traditional classroom modules outside of the mandatory final-semester internship.
One programme she is particularly proud of is Work-based Learning (WBL), a 15-week part-time attachment in retail pharmacies.
Pharmacy graduates typically choose between retail and hospital-based environments when they start work as pharmacy technicians (PTs), but the polytechnic had up until then offered students to complete their internship either at the hospital pharmacies or retail pharmacies.
Maisha felt that the WBL programme would complement the student internship programme and give students critical exposure to both the hospital and retail work environment. She tailored it for third-year students to work at retail pharmacy chains like Guardian, Watsons and Unity and smaller outfits.
Reporting to pharmacists at each outlet, the students undertake a wide range of tasks, ranging from dispensing medicines to serving walk-in customers and inventory management.
Maisha and her team also detailed a weekly learning plan that is shared with the companies’ human resources department and pharmacists, who are essentially the students’ supervisors.
After WBL, students may choose to do their internship in their final semester at a hospital pharmacy. “Some may like the retail setting; others may like hospitals, which is fast-paced and has a different patient profile. The WBL on top of the internship help aspiring PTs decide which environment is more suitable for them,” Maisha sums up.
WBL was also launched in tandem with two new subjects at the time: Health Management in Patient Care, and Pharmaceutical Legislation, Marketing and Management. The former covers ways to help patients manage chronic diseases, while the latter dives into drug laws, marketing fundamentals and the business aspects of pharmacy operations.
“The retail pharmacy setting lends very well to the learning outcomes of these subjects,” says Maisha happily.
Feedback on the WBL has been positive from both the industry partners and students: While companies see this as an opportunity to train and retain potential interns and employees, students relish learning in a “real work environment”, she adds.
Growing her students’ network of mentors
Another significant way for polytechnic students to toe-dip into industry is through mentorship, which Maisha facilitates through the Industry Mentor Network (IMN) programme.
Students in their second year apply to join the highly subscribed IMN programme, and indicate their preference for a working alumni or mentor in certain industries. They meet their mentors at least three times per semester to seek advice in personal growth and career support. Some end up being offered internships and even full-time employment with their mentors.
“These mentors become part of your network. It’s a relationship. You never know when you need to go back to this person for advice,” says Maisha.
Her own network of relationships, with industry partners and her own team, also reaps returns in the form of career talks by industry practitioners, learning journeys to pharmaceutical companies and guest speakers at course lectures.
She contributes back to the network as part of the Ministry of Health Pharmacy Technician training and development committee, which ensures graduates meet competency requirements. She also organised the inaugural Partners in Career Guidance event in 2018 for parents to get acquainted with and support their children in their choice of career pathways.
Last year, Temasek Polytechnic organised the biennial Joint Polytechnic & ITE Pharmaceutical Science e-Forum where students could learn about trending topics and interact with speakers from the industry.
Importance of interdisciplinary collaboration
To round off students’ workforce readiness, Maisha is a fervent supporter of interdisciplinary collaboration.
To give students a boost in data literacy, Maisha piloted an interdisciplinary learning (IDL) project between students studying Pharmaceutical Science and those in Big Data and Analytics. With at least two students from each diploma course in a group, the IDL project called for students to create a dashboard to analyse and visualise tablet quality during manufacturing.
While the Pharmaceutical Science students learned how to create a dashboard and present data in a compelling manner, their informatics-savvy peers picked up knowledge about pharmaceutical manufacturing.
It is a precursor to projects that students will have to undertake during their internship and possibly after they enter the workforce in future. “We work with data daily. What IDL does is give them exposure and an appreciation of data analytics and how it can be applied in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry,” Maisha says.
Impact of a Course Chair
These and all improvements Maisha has pushed forth for her students were driven by the prospect of being able to make a concrete difference to their future.
Being in the course chair’s seat added more vroom to her efforts. “After meeting industry partners, I can actually decide to put in certain subjects or make changes to subjects to make sure my students have the relevant knowledge and skillsets when they go out to work,” she explains.
“I can reach out to partners for job opportunities or even further education opportunities. I can help with articulation that will help students shave one year off their degree programme, for example. These are things I can actually do,” she says, her voice both determined and delighted at once.
She considers her ability to connect with and influence students the most heartening part of her work as an educator. “Some of them come back after graduating to ask me for further advice. This is when I feel I’ve done my job, that I can share what I know not just while they’re here.”