Commencement 2024: Fascination with science, passion for helping others leads pharmacy graduate toward career in infectious disease

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 13, 2024 — Like many health professionals who choose to dedicate their lives to helping others, Rebecca O’Toole’s career path was directed by a harrowing personal experience, which, while stressful and frightening, ultimately proved inspiring thanks to the compassion of the health-care workers on the case.

O’Toole was already a student in the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy but had yet to decide on a specialty when her mom was hospitalized with a serious infection that landed her in the intensive care unit. The Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, native rushed home to be with her family while her mother was placed on a ventilator, where she would remain for more than a month before making a full recovery.

“She’s totally fine now, but going through that experience really drove my interest in infectious disease and critical care,” O’Toole said. “She was there for an infection and they didn’t know what was going on. We had to just sit and watch. The doctors were really amazing and saved her life, and I knew the pharmacists were part of that team behind the scenes. I thought, I could be that person for someone else; that’s what I want to do. And I get to go do that now.”

Studying pharmacy was a natural fit for O’Toole. A self-described “huge nerd” who loves reading science fiction novels and playing strategic board games like “Settlers of Catan,” O’Toole always had a fascination for chemistry and biology, to go along with a passion for helping others. “So all these things kind of naturally pushed me toward a career in pharmacy,” she said.

The ability to earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree in just six years through the URI College of Pharmacy’s 0-6 program—in which students earn their undergraduate and graduate degrees within the same program without having to reapply to graduate school after finishing gen eds—was a huge draw for O’Toole. So was the flexibility the college allows students to pursue interests outside the notoriously demanding major, a luxury not all pharmacy schools offer students.

“URI’s 0-6 program jumped to the top of my list, so I decided to come for a visit. When I stepped on campus, I absolutely fell in love with the beautiful trees, the beautiful buildings,” O’Toole said. “I fell in love with the program and the flexibility they offered, especially allowing me to study abroad during my sophomore year, which was something that was really important to me. A lot of pharmacy degree programs are very prescriptive … you do this, then this, then this. You don’t get to make a lot of choices. But that’s not what I saw when I looked at URI’s program. Having that super supportive environment where you can explore any interest, that’s what drew me in.”

O’Toole embraced that flexibility, studying art and history in addition to the demanding pharmacy curriculum, and traveled to Florence, Italy, to study for a semester during her sophomore year.

She also embraced the wealth of experiential opportunities the college offers, beginning with a research assignment in Dean (then-professor) Kerry LaPlante’s lab at the Providence VA Medical Center. She partnered with professionals from the Cleveland Clinic on a research project on telehealth prescriptions of antibiotics, which was published in the journal Clinical and Infectious Disease. She also served clinical rotations at Women & Infants Hospital, Miriam Hospital, Roger Williams Medical Center, Genoa Pharmacy, and Rhode Island Physicians Inc.

She then got an opportunity with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Antimicrobial Stewardship, working on projects that fit perfectly with her interest in infectious disease. She helped merge drug databases to be used to analyze outpatient antibiotic use, updated the CDC’s penicillin allergy fact sheet with new data, and created an interactive antimicrobial stewardship map for the CDC website.

“It was awesome; they really integrated me into the team right away,” O’Toole said. “It wasn’t like I was doing busy work. I knew they were projects that were going to have an impact down the line.”

O’Toole will continue making an impact on health and health care after graduating with her Pharm.D. degree in May. She has already secured a position as a resident pharmacist at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, where she plans to continue her research into infectious disease and critical care. In the future, she sees herself working on a critical care team in a hospital, and ultimately hopes to one day coordinate her own antimicrobial stewardship program. Teaching could also be in her future.

“With my own antimicrobial stewardship program, I’d be able to precept and have my own students so I can pass along all I’ve learned to them,” O’Toole said. “Maybe further down the line, split my role between being a clinical pharmacist and a professor working in academia like all the wonderful professors here.”

For now, O’Toole is excited to celebrate her graduation with a cross-country road trip to visit family members scattered throughout the Midwest, enroute to her new home in Denver.

“I’m a fun mix of excited and nervous about moving across the country. I love going for walks on the beach; moving to Denver, I’m sure it’ll be walks in the mountains,” said O’Toole, noting mentors like LaPlante and professors Todd Brothers and Kristina Ward have prepared her well for future endeavors. “URI has given me everything I could possibly need. I would never change my decision to come here. It was the best experience.”