Thursday, July 9, 2020

When Associate Dean Mary Ray was a senior in high school, her father—a retired coal miner—told her that he thought a career as a community pharmacist would be a good fit for her given her love of science and helping people. Ray was already planning to attend Penn State to study engineering but took her father’s advice and applied to pharmacy school. It was a pivotal decision, and one she does not regret.

Ray wound up attending Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where she earned her BS and PharmD. And although she decided to pursue a clinical career instead of becoming a community pharmacist, as her father suggested, Ray says he supported her decision. It was during her residency that mentors encouraged Ray to try teaching.

“My residency mentors told me that my strengths were delivering and modeling empathic patient care,” says Ray. “But it wasn’t until my residency director told me that I was a ‘natural’ both at the podium and teaching in front of small groups that I started to give teaching a serious look.”

Ray started teaching at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and was fortunate to have strong mentors who shaped her approach to student instruction, classroom management, and leadership. “My initial teaching experience was so positive; it shaped my career,” she says. As Ray grew as a teacher and researcher, she enjoyed helping students understand the importance of seeing every patient as they would a family member.

After several years at Wilkes, Ray moved on to the School of Pharmacy at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she spent a total of seven years as a teacher, preceptor, and director of experiential education. Ray also spent six years working in the pharmaceutical industry as a medical liaison. She arrived at the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy in 2015.

From her first day on the job as the College’s assistant dean for assessment and curriculum, colleagues noticed Ray’s passion for her work. Clinical Associate Professor Deanna L. McDanel worked with Ray as chair of the Assessment Committee and works with her today as chair of the Student Success and Progression Committee. McDanel says that Ray regularly brings fresh ideas and enthusiasm to committee meetings and projects.

Deanna McDanel, Clinical Associate Professor
Deanna McDanel
Clinical Associate Professor

Since her arrival, Mary has become a very valuable faculty member,” says McDanel. “She is an ambassador for the success of our students and a mentor for so many of our future pharmacists. The repertoire of teaching and collegiate engagement she has achieved is commendable.

Ray has played a significant role in enhancing the College of Pharmacy’s Learning & Living Curriculum, and oversees the work of the College’s curriculum and assessment committees. Colleagues say that Ray always takes a high-level look when considering curriculum needs and asks herself and others: “Are we teaching students what they need to know? Are we taking a cohesive approach to the curriculum and best preparing the students for pharmacy practice?”

“If the answer is no and Mary identifies deficiencies, she fixes those deficiencies, whether it means recruiting someone with the expertise to teach the subject or jumping in to take care of it herself,” says Laura Knockel, clinical assistant professor. “Her primary focus is always the students.”

Ray developed the current multi-year PharmD Learning Portfolio course focusing on student metacognition and learning outcome assessment, and recently created the Active Residency Preparation elective course. Reserved for P3 students, the residency course helps students prepare to apply for highly competitive residencies across the nation.

“She curated [the Active Residency Preparation] course exclusively for our benefit,” says Rebecca McCaughey, PharmD candidate 2021, MPH candidate 2020. “She put in hours upon hours of her own time investing in our future residency match experiences. I can say, as a student of the course, that I gained invaluable information during those fifteen weeks and will likely have a more successful attempt at landing my dream pharmacy residency because of it.”

Students say they appreciate that Ray models the very behaviors and professional creativity she expects from them in the classroom. This helps them see how certain techniques work in real-life and gives them a sense of confidence going into new academic and professional situations. Ray is a proponent of mindfulness, which she also practices herself, and works with students to use the technique to become more attentive practitioners and to take better care of their own health and well-being.

Lorin Fisher, a recently hired College of Pharmacy faculty member and former PGY2 Ambulatory Care pharmacy resident, says she has been lucky to work with Ray because she has helped her to become a better thinker and teacher.

“I have been able to reflect upon and implement her modeled behavior as a facilitator of learning and instructional leader in all the teaching and precepting roles I have assumed,” says Fisher. “Her creativity and thoroughness modeled through our teamwork in instructional design and committee duties illustrate her dedication to student success, collaboration with colleagues, and her own lifelong learning through scholarship, which I hope to exemplify as a clinical academician.”

Morgan Jacks, '19 PharmD, '20R, was one of the first to take Ray’s portfolio course and says that it helped her to learn how to “take a step back and look at situations differently,” even negative or stressful situations. “This is something I learned from Mary during her mindfulness lectures and the self-reflection and self-assessment talks during our work on [updating] the portfolio course,” says Jacks. “While these are not skills specific to pharmacy, they are useful skills she teaches which can be used lifelong.”

Colleagues also praise Ray for her dedication to student success and the overarching mission of the College of Pharmacy to prepare pharmacists who strive to keep their community safe and healthy.

“Mary tirelessly works to make sure to ‘close the feedback cycle’ and to improve both the methods of how we deliver curricular content and the specific content that we deliver,” says Jeanine Abrons, clinical associate professor and director of International Student Pharmacist Activities at the College of Pharmacy. “She is passionate about student success and not afraid to advocate for students or speak for changes that need to be made.”

When Ray thinks back to the day her father first mentioned a career in pharmacy, she smiles. If only he knew then what she’d become. Ray considers her career in academic pharmacy to be her professional calling.

Mary Ray - 2020 Teacher of the Year

Mary Ray, Associate Dean
2020 Collegiate Teacher of the Year

Teachers don't impact for a year, but for a lifetime, says Ray. I view the opportunity to instruct students as a true privilege and see my role as one who not only provides them with information, but one who challenges them to consider who they are as individuals, what they bring to the patient and profession, and to identify the practice that will allow them to best convey their gifts.

Finding that match may be the key to their long-term fulfillment. I understand this because I have found my own match in teaching.