The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences hosts a drug discovery forum for the mid-South.
By David Mery and Skylar Connor
Founded in 2014 by the AAPS student chapter at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Pharmacy, the Drug Discovery and Development Colloquium (DDDC) was established with a vision to provide researchers and students interested in drug discovery with a forum in the mid-South region of the United States. The 2014 student chapter and faculty advisor, Cesar Compadre, Ph.D., a professor in the college’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, had noticed that since the majority of the research efforts and large pharmaceutical companies were concentrated along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, many drug discovery researchers in the middle of the country felt isolated. Therefore, DDDC was initiated to foster communication and collaboration between scientists in the mid-South. As stated by Shraddha Thakkar, Ph.D., former head of the UAMS student chapter, now a principal investigator at the National Center for Toxicological Research and the chapter's current faculty advisor, “DDDC is the thing that can bring everyone working in drug discovery together.” This conference is unique as it has received support from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as various colleges of pharmacy in mid-South regions over the years. It is strongly attended by several renowned scientists from FDA, industry, and academia.
Once a year, an excited crowd of students, researchers, regulatory, and industry professionals from Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and recently the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, gather to network, present their work, and attend career development seminars. In 2019 our student chapter wanted to focus on the diversity found within drug discovery. Our chapter and regular attendees span a variety of fields including pharmacology, toxicology, chemistry, bioinformatics, and drug safety. We recognize that there is diversity in drug discovery and that each of us can contribute, as highlighted in this year’s conference title: Putting the Pieces Together. Approximately 150 students and faculty participated in DDDC 2019 to hear from several outstanding speakers, including William Slikker Jr, Ph.D., director of FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), Weida Tong, Ph.D., director of the Bioinformatics Division at NCTR, Pravin Chaturvedi, Ph.D., CEO, Oceanyx Pharmaceuticals, and Robert Doerksen, Ph.D., professor at the University of Mississippi, to name a few.
Every year, DDDC opens with the student poster session, which has become a major highlight of the colloquium. Students are given the opportunity to present their research to a diverse audience from academia, industry, and FDA—the perfect scientific recipe for producing a wealth of questions, suggestions, collaborations, and mentoring opportunities. As stated by Doerksen: “The mission of drug discovery is not only to find and develop new medications but to educate graduate students and research fellows. If everybody involved is also learning in the process, those efforts that fail to result in a marketable product are not complete failures.” This sentiment is at the heart of why our student chapter started DDDC, to provide a platform for networking, learning, and communication.
Besides organizing the event in Arkansas in 2014, 2017, and 2019, the UAMS student chapter has helped other student chapters to organize DDDC on their campuses. These chapters include the University of Mississippi at Oxford in 2015, the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2016, the University of Kentucky in 2018, and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center that will host DDDC 2020. As expressed by our immediate past-president Skylar Connor, a doctoral student in the UAMS / University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bioinformatics program, “Being part of the chapter leadership has been a great experience, it has allowed me to foster a number of collaborations and friendships and it is also a lot of fun.”