Academic and leader opts to step down

08 June 2012

Head of University of Auckland School of Pharmacy John Shaw is stepping down in July to become, in his words, a "normal professor."

We meet in the tearoom at the Medical and Health Sciences faculty of the university - a state-of-the art building which now also houses the School of Pharmacy.

Professor Shaw has been instrumental in insisting his students become part of this world-class facility, and he proudly shows me around the building.

His self-made cup of tea is in a mug with a picture of a dog and the words "Top Dog" on it.

For the past 12 years, Professor Shaw, now 62, has been the top dog. Along with Simon Hurley, he opened the Pharmacy School in February 2000 with an initial cohort of 64 students, despite heavy opposition from the Otago University Pharmacy School.

"We [the staff] decided, right from the outset, we were a legitimate discipline. We gave the message to students they were not subservient or beholden to anybody."

The message to students was clear and, Professor Shaw believes, helped pave the way for students to work in multidisciplinary teams with other health students.

"The fact our students are increasingly regarded as the medicines experts and an integral part of the team makes me very proud."

As a man who has influenced and guided countless careers in pharmacy, it is interesting Professor Shaw's career began after a chance discussion with his flatmate.

Both were initially studying biology at Liverpool Polytechnic, but his flatmate decided to pursue a career in pharmacy instead, because there was no obvious career following biology.

"I'd never really thought about it before, but I did some research around what pharmacy was about and I decided to apply for it as well," Professor Shaw says.

He was attracted to the idea of knowing how a drug worked, and how it worked in people.

"Knowing there was a definite career at the end of it was also an incentive - something to pay the bills."

While studying at Brighton Polytechnic, he worked at community pharmacies during his summer holidays.

"My first summer job was working at Boots the Chemist in the UK."

After graduating, Professor Shaw completed his internship at Guys Hospital in London.

"It was the early 70s and there was this new idea called clinical pharmacy. We were the first group of eight interns allowed to go on ward rounds - it was all very exciting and new."

A year of locuming as a community pharmacist followed; however, Professor Shaw soon realised pharmacology was what motivated him most.

His PhD was on the mechanics of lithium.

"It's an amazing compound because you can dig it out of the ground."

Lithium has a profound effect on manic depression (bipolar disease), and it is intriguing to think a simple element like that could cause such a profound change and relief of symptoms.

Professor Shaw's academic career grew out of the three years he spent working on his doctorate.

"There was a sense you were pushing the boundaries, at the forefront of discovery. That confirmed I would like a career in academia and researching new knowledge."

At the end of his PhD, Professor Shaw thought he might like to see the world, so  applied for academic positions in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

"I got several offers, but the one to be lecturer in pharmacology at Central Institute of Technology (CIT) in Heretaunga came first."

Professor Shaw and his new wife agreed to go to New Zealand for a "couple of years." However, a love affair with the country began and New Zealand has been home for the Shaws for 34 years.

"I really liked New Zealand because it was a microcosm of what Britain used to be."

Professor Shaw spent 11 years teaching at CIT, until the Government declared the facility wasn't fit for future purpose and closed it down in 1989.

"A lot of those students I started with have gone on to do fantastic things. Bronwyn Clark, Trish Farrelly, Keith Crump are all former students and great people to know."

One of his biggest mentors was Peter Coville, head of the pharmacy school at CIT in 1978, and later dean of the Otago University Pharmacy School from 1987 to 1988.

"He was an influential figure in my life. He died of cancer in the early 2000s and it was very sad because he was still quite young. His legacy is tremendous."

Professor Shaw also acknowledges Doug Hancox, who was his first boss at CIT, as a friend and mentor. In 2000, Professor Shaw persuaded Mr Hancox out of retirement to help set up the School of Pharmacy in Auckland.

Mr Hancox left the school in 2009, to enter his second retirement.

In 1990, everything from CIT, "lock, stock and barrel", moved to the University of Otago School of Pharmacy, including Professor Shaw who accepted the position of associate professor of clinical pharmacy in 1990.

"It was a joint position between the school of pharmacy and Dunedin Hospital, so I had an active role working in hospital pharmacy as well as lecturing."

During his 10 years at Otago, Professor Shaw helped grow the intake of students and develop the clinical pharmacy programmes, still in operation.

In 1998, there was a growing shortage of pharmacists and Auckland University decided to establish pharmacy as a discipline.

Professor Shaw accepted the position of head of the school in September 1999, despite the disruption for his children, then 12 and 17, who had grown up in Dunedin.

"The move to Auckland was frenetic. The decision to go ahead with the course was made in August 1999 and the first intake of students was in February 2000, so it was very full on."

Pharmacy Council chief executive and registrar and former CIT student Bronwyn Clark says the role Professor Shaw has played as head of the pharmacy school has been "absolutely pivotal" for New Zealand pharmacy.

"The amount of work and dedication he has put into this role is hard to quantify, but the results have been outstanding," Ms Clark says.

"John's vision for a collaborative inter-professional pharmacy education programme has been enormously successful, and he has received two prestigious teaching awards from the university for his efforts.

"His drive for the Interprofessional Maori Health Week has been highly successful and is unique in pharmacy undergraduate education in Australasia," Ms Clark adds.

Most recently, Professor Shaw was awarded the Gold Medal at the Pharmaceutical Society symposium. He has also received the Gluckman Medal, the Butland Dis-tinguished Teacher Award, the University of Auckland Teaching Excellence Award, the New Zealand College of Pharmacists Peter Coville Award, and fellowships of the Pharmaceutical Society, the New Zealand College of Pharmacists and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Twelve years on, Professor Shaw is going back to what he loves most - teaching and research.

"To be in a position to shape and mould is an unbelievable privilege.

"The 12 years have gone in a flash, but there comes a time when you have to step aside and let someone else take over."

Professor Shaw says he is happy with his accomplishments, setting up the school and the course, but now he needs to indulge himself a bit.

A trip to the UK and the US is on the cards, before Professor Shaw begins teaching again.

This article was written by Rhonwyn Newson and was published in the June 2012 edition of Pharmacy Today. We are grateful to Pharmacy Today for allowing its use on the FMHS website.