Pharma Fun at VU: Zombie Apocalypse Lab

From my story at Academic Pharmacy Now

There’s the typical pharmacy course where student pharmacists explore lab results, learn about medications and consider patient needs. A course held at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy went with a unique approach, which included this outrageous combination of words: Zombie Apocalypse Lab.

Yes. They’ve done it. They lived to tell.

For two years, the VCU School of Pharmacy has run electives for third-year students in advanced non-sterile compounding with a twist. Enter zombies. Spurred by this bit of horror fantasy, the professors turned a seemingly routine pharmacy course into an edge-of-your-seat experience. That’s because the real world offers those too: natural disasters, floods, power outages. So the professors put a method to the madness by enabling students to prepare pharmaceutical concoctions using the nearest herbs in a lab with no electricity, no running water and only the most antiquated equipment, making the experience as stressful as it could be without the reality of the danger. They pumped dreary music in the background, installed dark garbage bags to block sunlight and assembled cardboard cutouts of “The Walking Dead.” And yes, a zombie or two walking around with streaks of “blood.”

Dr. Lauren Caldas, assistant professor, dreamed up the idea for the elective because she wanted to be innovative and do things a bit differently for the 30 students in the non-sterile compounding course. She recalled saying to her partner, Dr. Abigale T. Matulewicz, also an assistant professor, “Hey, why don’t we do this elective and tie it to Zombie Week?” Both fans of “The Walking Dead,” they jumped on the idea of creating the zombie theme that ran through the course, which allowed students to learn real-life pharmacy skills. The two-week course began with student pharmacists evaluating an herb natural to Virginia that had medical properties that they could develop and ended with a zombie-in-your-face moment where the students had to put together medications in a fake hurry-up scenario to comfort people in pain over tooth ailments, at least in time to flee the clutches of any zombies and get real care.

“The beauty of this was how it teaches the same core concepts without having students reliving the actual traumatic event they’ve gone through,” Caldas said. “We have had students who have gone through a lot, these individual harrowing stories coming from war zones and everywhere. It teaches the same impressive skills of problem solving and thinking on your feet in a more relaxed environment. We wanted to elevate the learning environment and encourage the faculty to get out of their silos.”

I liked the idea of putting a constraint on compounding. When you have all the tools available, that’s not the real world—you have supply and equipment constraints. It highlights that in a fun way, kind of a real-world application. And there was the need to use spot-on critical thinking.MICHAEL ONG, STUDENT PHARMACIST

“We wanted to have the flexibility to do this as a fun thing versus a first-year compounding course, which is content-heavy and doesn’t allow for a lot of creativity,” Matulewicz added. “With a smaller number of students it allows for more unique things that we could do. It was a great way for students to be engaged, and also fun for us to be outside of the traditional teaching setting.”

A Major Ingredient

A key component in the zombie apocalypse course design was an herb that could be a pharmaceutical source with medicinal properties to be used in the event of a catastrophe. Caldas thought of yarrow—a flowering plant known as a hardy perennial that grows in Virginia, essentially in the school’s backyard. The herb was used by Native Americans in the colonial days and is known for having anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, Caldas said. It has been used for years for fever, the common cold and even has been chewed on to relieve toothache, which was the source of “pain” for the would-be patients.

“Yarrow grows easily here and it is regularly used as a natural remedy like chamomile,” Caldas said. “Students used this natural product to create their own products, similar to creating a baking recipe from scratch.” That fits perfectly with non-sterile compounding, which is meant for something ingested by the mouth or skin rather than injected.

Caldas, an expert in labeling and dispensing, reached out to the School of Pharmacy’s Dr. Michael Hindle, a professor and expert in pharmaceutical analysis, and one of his doctoral students to research the medicinal properties of yarrow. Hindle spent months evaluating the substance and how students could extract and analyze medication from dried yarrow. At the outset, “we basically started from scratch with hard groundwork reviewing the literature, and sometimes what they do in the literature doesn’t always go as smoothly as described in the paper,” Hindle said.

The team evaluated the herb and analyzed active drug ingredients and what could be extracted from the plant. The aim was to “make it relevant to pharmacy students. This is something they heard about but did not do themselves,” Hindle said. “In turn, they would extract the active ingredient and successfully incorporate it into some compounding product.”

Preparing for the Worst

In the final class, the student pharmacists had a few hours to put together a formula designed to deal with fictitious patients’ tooth ailments before they could get medical care in the face of the zombie apocalypse. Many students focused on making a formula for mouthwash.