When Michael Lombardo walked down the aisle to pick up his Ph.D. diploma at commencement this year, he carried mental images of some special people with him.
Lombardo, a native of Sudbury, Mass. who earned his PHARM.D. in 2011, became only the second person in UConn School of Pharmacy history to earn both degrees from the school. And, he’s quick to say he didn’t make this journey alone.
Anyone who has ever pursued a doctorate knows the importance of a major advisor. This is the person who inspires, guides, cajoles, illustrates, teaches, urges, and sometimes even (gently we hope) threatens burgeoning scholars into completing their coursework, doing their research, and finishing their dissertations. Helped along the way by other members of their graduate committee, people like Lombardo develop professional and personal relationships that often define virtually all their future endeavors.
In Lombardo’s case, his major advisor was the late Amy Anderson, Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and former head of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. He had begun working in Anderson’s lab as a second year pharmacy student and had developed a keen interest in her work developing antibiotics to combat drug resistant bacteria.
When Anderson became ill, and subsequently died, in July of 2016, her loss shook not only her family, friends, and professional colleagues, but her students, as well.
“Like a lot of new students, when I first started in the School of Pharmacy I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my degree. Thanks to a suggestion from [now Director] Jill Fitzgerald in the Office of Experiential Education, I decided to see if I liked working in a lab and doing some bench science. Just to give it a try.
“That’s when I joined Amy’s lab. As it turned out, she was the one who pushed me into the undergraduate honors program and without her guidance I don’t think I would have ever dreamed of going to grad school [after my PHARM.D.]. She’s the one who encouraged me to think about getting a Ph.D. She always prioritized her student’s development before anything else, and yeah, her death hit me really hard.”
And that’s when other’s rallied to make sure Lombardo stayed the course. He says it is impossible to name all of the people who were essential to his success, but three of them were on his dissertation committee. They are Dennis Wright, Professor of Medicinal Chemistry in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, who stepped in as his primary advisor; José Manautou, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Interim Department Head of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Victoria Robinson, Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.
Of the latter he says, “Vicky and Amy were great friends and colleagues and Vicky really kept me on track, especially writing my dissertation. She knew exactly how to keep me going when it was really hard to stay focused.”
For his part, Manautou says that Lombardo’s future is virtually unlimited. He was the advisor to the only other UConn PHARM.D./Ph.D. and that was Lauren Aleksunes who completed her Ph.D. in 2006. She is now Associate Professor of Toxicology at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers University.
“Mike deserves all the credit in the world,” says Manautou. “Students who get a lot of training at the bench get a different perspective about what goes on behind the scenes in terms of drug discovery, development and safety assessment, and pharmaceutical technology. They really appreciate what it takes to get a medication to market. Both Mike and Lauren are very versatile and they have options in academia, industry, or working in the regulatory areas of government. There’s really no limit to what they can accomplish.”
In fact, Manautou says he won’t be surprised if both Aleksunes and Lombardo end up as deans of a school of pharmacy due to their comprehensive training and unique perspectives.
For now, Lombardo is enjoying a few weeks of comparative relaxation as he gets several manuscripts ready for publication. He’ll be staying on in Professor Wright’s lab during the summer and then will have to decide among several options.
Lombardo says, “Right now I’m feeling torn between academia and industry. My motivating factor to go into academia is to follow Amy’s example of mentoring students going forward. Having the opportunity to work with undergraduates and watching them develop would be really meaningful.”
But, he’s also interested in innovative research with a pharmaceutical company where there might be an opportunity to reach patients more directly through drug development.
“I feel I’m at a crossroads, right now, and I will probably end up doing a post doc with a research project of my own. It’s actually a nice problem to have!”
Then Lombardo pauses and smiles. It turns out that at his recent graduation his parents reminded him that as a high school student choosing among pre-med, pre-dental, and pre-pharmacy programs, one of the deciding factors in choosing pharmacy was that ‘it wouldn’t take him as long’ to complete his studies.
But, he hastens to add, the lengthy journey has been worth it.
The UConn School of Pharmacy offers dual degrees leading to a PHARM. D. and a Master’s in Business Administration, a Master’s in Public Health, and the Ph.D. Details can be found on the School’s website.