Pharmaceutical sciences lecture
Pharmaceutical sciences major Han Lee attends a molecular pharmacology class taught by associate professor Mahtab Jafari. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Support for the discovery of new drugs that can improve the public’s health is a key component of the long-term transformation of the U.S. healthcare system.

The National Institutes of Health, in an effort to kick-start the effort, is founding the National Center for Advancing Translational Science, which will invigorate activities at universities and pharmaceutical companies, and eventually create more jobs for skilled pharmacists and researchers.

UC Irvine administration, recognizing this potential for growth, started an undergraduate program in pharmaceutical sciences in 2004 and hired Mahtab Jafari to craft it. Her creation is turning into one of the most popular majors on campus. It enrolled 143 students in its first freshman class in 2010-11, and has more than 1,100 applications for 200 spots in next year’s freshman class.

“Pharmaceutical sciences will be one of the biggest undergraduate majors at UCI in a few years,” says Jafari, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences and director of its undergraduate program. “Students see a bachelor’s degree from our department as a gateway to very competitive medical and pharmacy schools.”

Richard Chamberlin, a UCI organic chemist who was appointed pharmaceutical sciences’ chair in 2007, says the distinctive program is perfectly suited to the surrounding  business environment. “The biomedical industry is a key part of California’s economy,” he says, “and UCI sits right in the middle of it,”

UCI offers the only undergraduate pharmaceutical sciences degree in California. The innovative, rigorous curriculum integrates concepts from biology, chemistry, chemical engineering, pharmacology and physiology. Students who earn the degree have received unparalleled training for future careers in medicine, biomedical research and the hot field of pharmacy, which U.S. News & World Report has touted for its excellent career opportunities and good pay.

Karen Vo is seeing the advantages of her UCI pharm sci degree first-hand. As part of the first graduating class in 2010, she has been scouting for doctoral programs in pharmacology and was accepted at the University of Washington and the University of Pennsylvania, two of the country’s top program.

“The program here has really given me a step up for graduate school,” Vo says. “I’ve seen that I’ve already taken some classes that are required in the doctoral programs. I don’t know of any other bachelor’s degree programs where you can say that.”

That’s part of the department’s design.

“We developed the curriculum to directly relate to graduate schools and the working world,” Jafari says. “We want our program to be a gateway to success in graduate school and in the industry.”

Jafari estimates that half of UCI’s pharm sci graduates will pursue a doctorate degree in pharmacy school, which is the traditional pathway for those who want to become pharmacists. But careers for Pharm.D.s aren’t just at the drug store anymore — many work in hospitals and at pharmaceutical companies, and their efforts are vital for drug creation and manufacture.

Its location near large biomedical companies and strong reputation in chemistry and biological sciences make UCI the No. 1 California school for producing pharmacy school applicants, a ranking that Chamberlin doesn’t think will change.