Adding to her life of research and science, Susan L. Mercer, Ph.D., seeks to impart her learning to others.
By Linda C. Brown
Susan L. Mercer, Ph.D., associate professor at Lipscomb University College of Pharmacy, teaches pharmacology, pharmaceutical and medicinal chemistry, and in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Laboratory. She is also an adjunct assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Department of Pharmacology and a member of the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology.
The Road to Academia
As she completed her doctorate, Mercer expected to work in industry. At an AAPS Career Fair, she met a representative from Lipscomb University, who spoke of starting a brand new pharmacy school. When she interviewed on campus, she had to wear a hard hat because the pharmacy building was still under construction. She quickly realized that she had found a rare entrepreneurial opportunity: to design a curriculum from the ground up and to take a leadership role in bringing it up to speed. Mercer liked that Lipscomb was a small, teaching-focused, Christian school. As a recent graduate, she had thoughts of possibly teaching someday, but the Lipscomb situation drew her in, and she seized the opportunity.
In addition to the challenges and excitement of building the College of Pharmacy, Mercer submitted her first independent federal grant application at Lipscomb, a learning experience she has been able to share to help the university launch research programs.
The most influential person in her career choice and pursuit of success was Andrew Coop, Ph.D., professor and associate dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Maryland, School of Pharmacy. As her graduate mentor, Coop encouraged independence and scientific exploration. “While the Coop laboratory is primarily a medicinal chemistry laboratory, he always stressed the importance of collaborations both within and outside the pharmaceutical sciences,” Mercer says. “As such, he expected us to be well versed in pharmacology, drug metabolism, drug transport, and computational modeling. He gave me the opportunity to work in a collaborator’s laboratory so that I could learn and eventually conduct my own in vitro and in vivo drug transport experiments. Further, Coop stressed the importance of engaging with the clinical faculty, as they were on the front lines interacting with patients; these interactions help shape a better pharmacy educator and researcher.”
Mercer adds, “Coop accepted that each of his graduate students had different strengths, weaknesses, and interests. He encouraged each of us to grow, develop, and pursue a career that we were passionate about.”
“As I made the decision to enter academia,” Mercer says, “Coop provided excellent career guidance. The fact that the Lipscomb University College of Pharmacy was a new program naturally brought challenges and opportunities. As a founding faculty member, it was exciting to design, develop, and implement a new curriculum and also build the research infrastructure at the University.”
Role of AAPS
A member of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS) since 2005, Mercer has engaged with the association as a student, member, leader, and student chapter faculty advisor. She has served in multiple capacities as part of the Drug Development and Discovery Interface section, including secretary/treasurer, chair, and the section’s representative on the AAPS’ Annual Meeting Program Committee, Awards Committee, Nominating Committee, and Program Coordination Committee.
Mercer says, “My participation in AAPS has allowed me to stay current with pharmaceutical industry trends and has drastically increased my professional network. Further, my engagement with AAPS has allowed me to develop my organizational and leadership skills. I have truly enjoyed working with such an intelligent and diverse group of member volunteers from academia, industry, and government to advance AAPS and the pharmaceutical sciences.”
Through the opportunity at Lipscomb University, Mercer has honed her leadership skills. In addition to her work to establish the College of Pharmacy academic program, she enhanced the Office of Sponsored Programs, which promotes access to research funding through competitive grants. Mercer developed a seminar series on finding grants and developing and submitting applications.
Mercer’s scientific interests lie in the design and synthesis of molecules to study biological systems concerned with drugs of abuse, pain management, and cancer therapeutics. She works in developing structure activity relationships using knowledge gained through biochemical and/or pharmacological evaluation, drug metabolism, and drug transport analyses.
In addition to her teaching and research, Mercer has published in the medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology literature and serves as a manuscript reviewer for a variety of research and teaching journals, such as the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education and the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. She has received various awards, including a Leadership Development Award from the American Chemical Society’s Younger Chemists Committee (2008), and has been recognized as a Distinguished Recent Alumni (2009) by Seton Hill University, where she earned her bachelor of science in chemistry.
Mercer has also been active with the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, especially its Academic Research Fellows Program. There she found a lot of professional development opportunities to further sharpen her leadership skills. She has served on its House of Delegates, is the current chair-elect of the Chemistry Section, and has volunteered on several Chemistry Section committees.
Launching the Next Generation
A dedicated academician, Mercer enjoys working with students in her professional role and as faculty advisor to the Lipscomb University AAPS Student Chapter, which was awarded third place in the 2017 AAPS Student Chapter of the Year Awards. She reports, “Our chapter leaders have worked diligently to provide excellent speaker and tour options to our membership while serving the community through educational outreach and service. I am honored to work with such a great group of students as their faculty advisor.”
The Lipscomb AAPS student chapter is one of the few comprising pharmacy students. When a group of students wanted to start an AAPS student chapter, Mercer considered her leadership roles with the University of Maryland AAPS student chapter. She believed her experience would be valuable in building a successful student chapter at Lipscomb. In addition to the chapter’s many activities, she has taken the opportunity to showcase what the pharmaceutical sciences are for these pharmacy students. She also works to connect the students with the pharmaceutical sciences faculty. Mercer says she was coached on how to successfully work with peers and faculty, and she wants to pass on that skill to the students at Lipscomb.
As an associate professor, Mercer counsels all her students on choosing an academic career. “I make sure they understand that faculty have multiple areas of responsibilities on which they’re evaluated,” she says. “These include teaching, research, service, and sometimes administration.” She makes sure they understand that the balance among these areas varies depending on the position or program they seek. She provides relevant examples so students and postdocs understand what each area entails. “Knowing this information upfront is critical for two major reasons,” Mercer says. “First, it helps students or postdocs think about their ideal distribution of effort and guides the decision on what type of academic position they should apply for. Second, being productive and successful in each area is generally required for the promotion and tenure process. Overall, this knowledge is powerful to allow for an open dialogue during the faculty application/interview process and also prepare them for a successful career.”
Mercer points out that working in academia has its ups and downs, just like any other career. To be successful, knowing why you are there is key. “Academic positions vary in terms of emphasis—research, teaching, or an equal mix of the two,” she says. “Regardless of the type of academic position, it is important to have passion and drive.” She also emphasizes excellent communication, collaboration, organization, and time-management skills as key to a successful career.
Ultimately, Mercer believes that success lies in being able to show others how to be successful. She is dedicated to sharing her knowledge to empower others to find success for themselves.
Linda C. Brown is the AAPS managing editor.