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Joseph Cusimano, graduated Arizona State University in 2014 with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry with an emphasis in medicinal chemistry and honors from Barrett Honors College. He is now in his fourth year of pharmacy school, pursuing a PharmD.
“I'm happy to share with you that I have recently been nominated as a finalist in the category of "Future Pharmacist" in the 2017, 8th Annual, Next-Generation Pharmacist awards. I am one of thirty Next-Generation Pharmacist award finalists, selected from more than 530 nominations. My co-finalists are Kim Nguyen and Kristy Nguyen. We fill find out who the winner is within our category on August 19th!,” he recently reported.
We recently caught up with Cusimano, to find out about his undergraduate honors experience, where he is now and how Barrett Honors College helped him get there.
How did you decide to attend ASU and Barrett? Did you have the opportunity to attend another university? What drew you to ASU and Barrett?
I attended a private high school called Seton Catholic College Preparatory High School in Chandler, AZ. My schooling provided me with an excellent springboard from which I could effectively competitively apply anywhere. I wanted to stay somewhere close to home, where my family and friends were, while furthering my academic interests at a world-class institution. My first choices were Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, though I had also received a scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York. I was honored to receive the scholarship to RPI, but ASU offered the same high-class education closer to home (and for a more affordable price!). Barrett really helped to seal the deal for me; when I toured the campus, I felt like the environment would facilitate my learning and personal development.
What was your Barrett experience like? Did being an honors student bring you opportunities that you may otherwise not have had?
My Barrett experience was filled with friendships, academic challenges, and fun. I'll never forget the first ice cream social, where I would meet one of my best friends in my college career, and later meet another that would be one of my closest friends even now. There were late nights of studying on the dormitory floor, exercising at midnight, and playing piano in the cafeteria when no one was there. Academically, I loved the intellectual challenge that honors classes brought to my career. I'll never forget taking Professor Montesano's HON 394 course on the history of nonviolence; I still think about the discussions and topics that we had in that class. My many honors contracts helped me to form connections and relationships with my professors that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise, from using in silico models to investigate a novel drug target in CHM 433, researching a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria and writing a literature review about it in BIO 353, and having lively discussions on environmental chemistry topics of interest with other honors students in CHM 233/234. My honors thesis was the most valuable experience of all, where I learned important laboratory and scientific study design skills while working on a project targeting a type of brain tumor called glioblastoma multiforme.
Did you live in the Barrett community? If so, how did that enhance your undergraduate experience?
I lived in the Barrett community my freshman and sophomore years of college. I loved having a gym and cafeteria so close to my dorm! It felt a little bit like living at Hogwarts (especially the room in the cafeteria)--but with more bicycles, longboards, and gelato. It was easy to feel at home at Barrett. As I mentioned earlier, Barrett was where I would meet many friends--some of which I am still close with today. At Barrett, I met individuals that were like-minded in their dedication to academic pursuits, but also culturally diverse, which made for a lot of stimulating conversations about both our similarities and differences. Later, one of my dearest friends would tell me that I was her Socrates. If I am at all like a philosopher, I owe much to Barrett, without which I would never have had the opportunity to ask important questions about the status quo that need to be asked, and armed with the tools to begin trying to answer them.
What sorts of honors-related activities were you involved in as an undergraduate and how did they prepare you for what you are doing now?
Aside from the above, I also took Professor Davies's HON 394 course on cancer biology. It was from this course that I learned about an internship in cancer research at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, where I was encouraged to apply and was accepted. My time in Houston, researching triple negative breast cancer, helped prepare me for my honors thesis on glioblastoma multiforme. All of these experiences in drug research and development lent themselves to my current career path in the field of pharmacy.
What aspects of Barrett do you think are most important for prospective students to know about?
I think it is important for students to know that Barrett is a community, first and foremost. You're not living at a hotel, isolated from your peers--you're living with them. Everyone knows everyone, especially the people on your floor. I think a lot of people go to college and are anxious that they'll struggle to make friends, transferring from the small pond of their local high school to the ocean that is ASU. At Barrett, you can have that same "small pond" experience while in the middle of the big, wide ocean that is ASU. My friendships were invaluable to succeeding in college; I can't tell you how many times we stayed up in the Barrett study rooms, scribbling things on white boards and re-teaching each other concepts that we learned in class. We watched the 2012 election results roll in while studying for cell biology and biochemistry exams. At Barrett, you can excel in your classes and have fun while doing it.
What was the thesis process like for you? What was your thesis about?
The thesis process was honestly one of the most challenging ordeals of my life. Of course, it's supposed to be; it's a crucible into which you pour your education and every ounce of perseverance and energy you've got, forging a capstone experience for your undergraduate career that you can be proud of. My thesis was about developing a drug development assay for the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). It involved spending countless hours at the lab, sometimes by myself, even after spending hours in class and at work. Being a scientist is messy; it isn't as clean as simply "run this experiment," and "calculate the results," and there's a lot that you can't find out from a textbook. There are nuances to everything, from every step in efficiently performing minipreps of plasmid DNA to maintaining a cell line (pro-tip: drawing smiley faces on the cell plate covers doesn't improve cell survival, though I like to think it improved their morale). I am certain that my experience with my honors thesis was important to being accepted to The Ohio State University's College of Pharmacy, a top 10 school in the nation.
What are you doing now and how did being in Barrett help you get there?
I am in the fourth year of the doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) program at The Ohio State University (OSU), on my advanced pharmacy practice experiences (APPEs). Being in Barrett helped me to succeed in my current program. After completing my thesis, I felt like I could take on anything in the world, and had no problem taking electives right from the get-go. I've completed a Graduate Interdisciplinary Specialization in Biomedical, Clinical, and Translational Science (GIS-BCTS), which relied upon the scientific training I picked up from my honors thesis. I've successfully co-written and implemented an interdisciplinary grant-funded project and am currently involved in two clinical research projects. The philosophical readings and reflections of the Human Event courses helped train me to be an ethically minded scientist, environmental steward, and caring clinician. Through Barrett's mandatory coursework in the humanities I was able to diversify my learning, which is important; to be a leader in any field, one must be both a content area expert and show good moral judgment. Barrett emphasizes a complete educational experience. I credit much of my success in pharmacy school to the undergraduate training that prepared me for it.
If you were speaking to a prospective Barrett student, what would you tell them about the honors college? What advice would you give them? What advice would you give to a current Barrett student?
I want prospective students to know that the Barrett experience is transformative. By the time I graduated I was an entry-level scientist, but more than that I was a competent adult, ready to challenge society and contribute to it. The honors program is not only about finding your niche, giving you the freedom to pursue your academic interests alongside the traditional curriculum, but about giving you the training to accomplish your career goals and dreams after graduation day.
For current students, I encourage them to take full advantage of their professors' expertise. Nowhere else will you have access to some of the most brilliant people in your field. Every honors contract is an opportunity to expand your expertise and find your niche, so take them seriously. Propose something new and outside your comfort zone; now is the time to explore!
How do you feel about being a finalist in the "Future Pharmacist" category of the Next Generation Pharmacist Awards? How significant is this?
I am so honored to be named a finalist in the "Future Pharmacist" category by a panel of leaders in the pharmacy profession. It is so inspiring to know that my future colleagues see great promise and potential in me, and I am all the more determined to live up to their expectations. No matter who wins, I will be deeply humbled to share the stage with two of my fellow finalists, whom I am very excited to meet in August. I am excited to represent my pharmacy school, The Ohio State University, and I give thanks to Arizona State University and Barrett, The Honors College, for helping to support my passions.
What are your future goals?
My future goal is to serve the community as a professor, fulfilling my dream to teach and inspire future generations of pharmacists, push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, and use my skills to heal others. My professional interests are in neuropsychiatric pharmacy, suicide prevention, and interdisciplinary collaboration.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Through pharmacy school, I've worked as a clinical pharmacy intern at the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, compounding chemotherapy, assisting with central pharmacy operations, and conducting medication safety and security audits.
At ASU, I worked as a subject area tutor at the Sun Devil Success Center, which was a very rewarding job. It was a pleasure to assist students with concepts in mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics, and I miss the wonderful staff and students.
At OSU, I co-founded a collegiate chapter of the College of Psychiatric and Neurologic Pharmacists, serving as their president and now their past-president. In my term as president we recruited 31 members and reached over 100 patients with mental health advocacy and education events. I'm proud of the work our chapter has done on raising awareness about careers in neuropsychiatric pharmacy and working to destigmatize mental illness, and I'm excited to see what we'll accomplish this year!