UBC Pharm Sci PhD candidate Louis Lin on exam prep, PharGS, and the second branch of pharmacology
Julia Kreger: How long have you been at UBC Pharm Sci?
Louis Lin: I started my master’s program here in September 2016, and then transferred into the PhD program. Time flies.
JK: What made you decide to come to UBC for your master’s and then stay on and do a PhD?
LL: Well, I kind of grew up in Vancouver. I was born in Edmonton, moved to Vancouver almost right away and then I moved from Vancouver to California when I was 11. Everyone in California called me the Canadian kid - “Oh, you’re the Canadian kid, you’re the Canadian kid.” I even had a Canadian flag up in my bedroom. And then when I finished my undergrad and was applying into various graduate programs, a part of me thought “Well, you know what, if I’m going to claim this Canadian-ship, let’s get back in touch with that side.” And now that I’m here, everyone calls me the California kid!
JK: Coming full circle?
LL: Coming full circle! I like that! I like that!
JK: What do you like about Vancouver specifically?
LL: The rain. No, I’m just kidding.
JK: Oh but I prefer the rain.
LL: You like rain? This is the perfect city for you! Hence why your office blinds are down, right? In the summer it’s absolutely beautiful. There are mountains, there are hikes. People here are very active, they’re hikers, or they love the rain too...That’s not mutually exclusive.
JK: Tell me about your area of research.
LL: I’m in Dr. Harvey Wong’s lab and I work mostly in a field called pharmacokinetics. Which in my opinion is a bit of an under-appreciated branch of pharmacology.
JK: How so?
LL: Pharmacology kind of branches off into two: pharmacodynamics which is the one that most people think of and is basically what the drug does to the body – the effects. I deal with the second half – pharmacokinetics – which is what the body does to the drug. In other words it’s the journey of the drug throughout the body. The drug is broken down and absorbed, distributed through the blood system and out into the various tissues, and then there’s metabolism and excretion which is essentially the body trying to get rid of this foreign substance.
LL: How did you become interested in pharmacokinetics?
LL: Again, I think it’s a pretty under-appreciated branch. It spans the drug formulation’s entire lifespan, from early discovery and development. For example, say you’re a chemist and you come up with a new compound and want to make it a drug. You will want to make sure that it’s pharmacokinetics are acceptable. It’s an interesting challenge in a sense that, you have a drug, you know it has a benefit, yet the body doesn’t know that and just sees it as a foreign substance. So it’s going to fight to get rid of it. There’s a balance of staying in the body long enough to have an effect and actually getting to the target site or where you want it to have an effect, but also for it to not be toxic. Also, later into a drug development lifespan they need to figure out how much to administer in different cases.
JK: So, dosage, patient characteristics, other variables?
LL: Yes, exactly! Because everyone’s different, right? The way you metabolize a drug might be different from me. It’s an interesting challenge.
JK: Is there specific area of pharmacokinetics that you are focusing on?
LL: I specifically focus on the early drug discovery part. As we know, the pharmaceutical industry is a billion-dollar industry with huge risks associated. One reason why drugs fail in the drug discovery process is because of failure in pharmacokinetics. Say, it doesn’t get properly absorbed as an oral formulation. Usually we want for a drug to work as an oral pill or capsule because it’s more practical for the patient than an injection. But a large number oral formulation attempts fail. For my project I’m developing a novel in vitro device to allow for a more physiologically relevant, permeability screen that may tell us more accurately how a drug gets absorbed orally. Which we can then integrate with other data to predict the drug’s journey in the body over time.
JK: What does that look like?
LL: One way that we do this is with a tool called physiologically-based pharmacokinetic modeling - PBPK modeling. The idea behind PK modeling is that when we look at the processes that happen in the body - absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion – these are all different processes that happen at different rates. And what do we know about rates? They can be described as mathematical equations. So, in a way, you can describe a drugs’ entire journey throughout the body as a series of mathematical equations. The PK modeling tool is a way to integrate all of these equations together.
A possible benefit, in my opinion, is that we’ll be able to reduce the amount of reliability we have on animal models. In practice, an animal isn’t really a good representation of what happens in humans. In a way, by using the mathematical model with data relevant to human physiology, we could bypass the species differences between mice and humans. It might not skip it entirely – but would guide it.
JK: It makes it more efficient?
LL: Exactly! Again, we’re talking about a billion-dollar industry with so many risks associated, so any sort of guidance gives you better parameters to work with.
JK: How is working with Dr. Wong?
LL: It’s great. Harvey is very experienced. He has been working in various pharmaceutical industries for a long time. It’s great to have someone with that industry experience as your PI.
JK: I hear you just took your comprehensive exam and passed. Congratulations! How did you prepare for that?
LL: The handbook I think recommends something one and a half months of taking off from complete lab work but I was busy with a lab move and computer work, and PharGS. It wasn’t until about a little under a month before that I really started to do like 90 to 100 percent. Just studying. Wake up. Read a textbook. Eat. Read a textbook. Go to bed. Repeat. It’s crazy.
JK: It sounds like an ordeal. The exam went okay though?
LL: It went really smoothly, yeah. It was actually a little fun once I got in there and got comfortable with it and all the nerves settled. I think the comprehensive exam is pretty unique because you can view it as an intellectual discussion. They’re mostly trying to see how you think.
JK: What advice would you share with a PhD student preparing for the comprehensive exam?
LL: I would say to have fun with it. Make sure you prepare of course, but also reach out for support to other students like “Hey I’m thinking about this topic, can I run it through with you?” If I didn’t do that I would have been much less prepared. Also, I knew that if I didn’t flip into “okay let’s have fun with it” mode during the exam the stress would have just compounded and I’d have shut down. I think the ability to just have fun and run with it makes it go more smoothly.
JK: Good advice! You’re the current president of PharGS. Why should prospective grad students participate in PharGS?
LL: Well, I’ll lead up to that answer by first saying that grad school itself is just a gauntlet. So it’s really important for grad school survival to have a support network and a community of people who relate to what you’re experiencing. PharGS provides that. We provide a community, not just through big things like BBQ events and paint nights but also the small, everyday things like hanging out in the grad lounge or weekly happy hours. Right now we have a Game of Thrones viewing group, we eat lunch together, play foosball. We have friendly little competitions. Additionally this year we’re really focussing on promoting wellness. We’ve organized for weekly yoga classes this summer and will be bringing in chair massage therapists too. It’s really important to have a community and PharGS provides that.
Graduate Student Conversations is an ongoing interview series designed to highlight our exceptional PhD and MSc candidates and their work, achievements, and experiences at UBC Pharm Sci.