AfRO Shines A Light on Mitchelle Masuko Choga

19.08.2020

In this interview, AfRO Shines A Light on Pharm Mitchelle Masuko Choga (B. Pharm, MPH), the Chairperson of the 62nd IPSF World Congress (2015/2016) and Chairperson, AfPS Reception Committee (2014). With over four years of active participation in IPSF, Pharm Mitchelle Masuko Choga shares how student leadership impacted her professional experiences in retail and public health. Through her work at one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies, she currently bridges the gap between pharma and public health. She is from Zimbabwe, the land of flaming red msasa trees, lush mountains ranges and of course, the great Victoria Falls. In this interview, Mitchelle holds no bars in sharing the authentic and inspiring stories of her exploits in IPSF and she challenges African pharmacy students to show up and position themselves as global changemakers. Whether you are a pharmacist-in-training, a recent graduate or in transition from one field of pharmacy to another, Pharm Mitchelle Masuko Choga's story will be a shot in the arm for you. Enjoy!

IPSF AfRO: It's such a delight to speak with you today. Who is Mitchelle Masuko Choga? Do tell us about yourself.

Mitchelle: Thank you for reaching out! It’s always nice to catch up with IPSF colleagues! You know, I have been asked that question a couple of times and I always wonder what to say, so here goes! I am a daughter, sister, wife, friend and pharmacist. I love my family and they come first in all I do. I am the first born in a family of 3 girls, so yes I was born to lead 😃. I am married to an amazing best friend and he keeps me grounded 🙂  (I can be very intense when it comes to work. Goals and checklists are my thing). I am currently working at Merck Pharmaceuticals in Non-interventional studies (I am all things public health) and I love science. I was a retail pharmacist for a while and decided to expand to public health in pharma as my goal is to be part of the workforce that bridges the gap between pharma and public health as we continue to move towards improved pharmaceutical care and ultimately make the role of pharmacists more visible in public health.

IPSF AfRO: Hmmm! I think that pharmacists need to keep proving their mettle, showing up every time and exceeding expectations. The more pharmacists do this, the better for the profession. What does your work at Merck entail?

Mitchelle: Oh, it’s a marriage of both worlds of pharma and public health. I manage non-interventional research execution, ensuring all study processes from end-to-end are done in compliance with relevant regulations. Project management and research skills are mainly utilized.

IPSF AfRO: You are an active member of IPSF. Please share with us your IPSF journey.

Mitchelle: I am now an IPSF Alumnus, more active in FIP now (FIP has a lot of opportunities for young pharmacists and recent graduates). I  joined IPSF in 2012, 8 years ago! I was very active in the local association and became ZPSA (Zimbabwe Pharmaceutical Students Association) Vice President in 2012,  expanded to international participation and became IPSF Contact Person in 2013, AfPS (African Pharmaceutical Symposium) Reception Committee Chairperson in 2014 and the 62nd IPSF World Congress Chairperson, 2015—2016. I attended and hosted a number of symposiums and conferences, organized and participated in public campaigns to name but a few. In all these posts and involvements, my love for the profession grew immensely, more than it would have if I had just spent time in the library memorizing pharmacognosy (Lol). I am forever grateful for the opportunity I had to lead and be part of the association.

IPSF AfRO: Such an impressive résumé here! 😄 It's great to know that in spite of your involvement in IPSF activities, your love for the profession blossomed. This isn't something many pharmacy students have come to terms with. Many fear involvement in extracurricular activities because they don't want to fail at their academics. Tell me, how were you able to manage time and expectations?

Mitchelle: I have always had a passion for service. Being in class, just studying, was not going to work for me! I realized that IPSF was not just “extracurricular”, as I got to learn even more about the profession and got hands-on experience of working with patients while I was still studying.  As for studying and  keeping up with grades, I received most of my soft skills training from IPSF (time management, project management, goal-setting etc), so that helped. My goal was to be a well-rounded pharmacist, so I had to be organized and managed my time well. That meant sacrifice. Time with friends and family sometimes would be compromised but the reward at the end was worth it.

IPSF AfRO: Interesting! It's great to see how well you've turned out. 😊 You indeed are an inspiration to pharmacy students. 😊 As global citizens, how can African pharmacy students position themselves for global opportunities so that they can make global change?

Mitchelle: Good question. Involvement! Involvement! Involvement! Be involved in as many initiatives as you can, locally and internationally (even if it’s virtual). Show up, raise your hand, volunteer your time and talents. In doing so, you open yourself up for opportunities, you learn new skills, you become exposed to new cultures and naturally, you are motivated to bring change to your surroundings. With this motivation and increased involvement ultimately comes being noticed as that student who knows what they are doing and is ready to help. Remember, all pharmacy students know pharmacology and medicinal chemistry. What sets you apart from everyone else? That is what will position you for success when seeking global opportunities to bring change. Once opportunities come your way, jump at them and never look back. The world has so many problems but a few capable people to solve them! Leverage your professors,  international colleagues and networks. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has that opportunity you have been looking for, so speak up! In a nutshell, Get Involved, Volunteer, Network and Grab Opportunities.

IPSF AfRO: 'Show up! Get involved', I like that. The youths represent our choicest resources in Africa. How can African youths drive the change we seek and create the Africa we need?

Mitchelle: I would say, having hope first. Hope for a better future even if it means the future is going to be better for our great great grandchildren.  With hope, we will not get tired of pushing forward for change and using the resources that we have (even if they are limited) to drive change. Given the African leadership landscape, full of older leaders who are not willing to learn and implement new ways of leadership, let alone embrace technology, it is hard. However, as open-minded, exposed and curious youths, we should take the initiative to bring the light and bridge the generational gap. Our voices need to be heard but they can only be heard if we have the work to show for it. So whatever we do, it has to be done with excellence. The work we have is to change and improve old systems that are no longer working, processes that no longer make sense and regulations that do not embrace technology. This is where all the work is: not just challenging the processes and systems but coming to the table with evidence-based leadership. The change is within us.

IPSF AfRO: Well said, Michelle. The choice of one's profession is a critical decision, and pharmacy represents one of the most respected professions in the world. Tell us, why pharmacy?

Mitchelle: Growing up, I knew I always wanted to be a health professional (not a doctor and not a nurse, even though these were probably the most visible). I studied hard so that I would be eligible for that “health profession” (Lol). I attended a career fair just before applying to the university, researched more about pharmacy and that was it for me! These were the 4 points for me: 1) I get to take care of patients  2) I don’t get to cut them, see blood etc which meant I could still dress up to work (this was my 17 year-old brain thinking) 3) I get to still practice science ( I loved chemistry) and  4) I get to be a health professional. I must say that it has proven to be the best decision ever!

IPSF AfRO: Lovely! 😄 It's incredible how our minds get motivated towards a career choice. Tell me, what is the most unpleasant experience you have had throughout your career? What is the most pleasant experience you have had?

Mitchelle: Most unpleasant experience for me was not being able to help patients who could not afford their medications. That always broke my heart: Giving someone a quotation and they just buy painkillers, leaving out the antibiotics because that’s all they could afford. Oh, so many stories abound, I could write a book! Most pleasant for me was being able to serve on the frontlines while influencing policy behind the scenes via ZPSA and IPSF. Well, ZPSA and IPSF remained my “extra curricular” activities even after graduation.

IPSF AfRO: What does the post-COVID era look like for the health sector in Africa?

Mitchelle: You know it’s hard to spell out the post-COVID era not only in Africa but also worldwide. We are still in the COVID era and information as you know is changing everyday. However, I do believe there is going to be greater interest in infectious disease emergence & preparedness, vaccine uptake and funding of infectious disease studies.

IPSF AfRO: Is Universal Healthcare Coverage (UHC )still an attainable goal for us in Africa? If yes, how do you think we can achieve UHC?

Mitchelle: This is an interesting question. 😊 I am a believer and my life is centred on hope and faith, so my immediate answer will be YES. However, I will say there is a lot of groundwork that needs to be done. There is a lot of policy change that comes with that “drastic change” and this will also require a mindset shift among our leaders, for them to understand why it is beneficial to fund UHC. A healthy nation is indeed a wealthy nation. I am hopeful that although we have a long way to go, it can be done!

IPSF AfRO: Given your experience in retail pharmacy, how can pharmacists effectively position themselves as patient-centred, and not only profits-focused?

Mitchelle: Good question. To be patient-centred, you have to have a certain level of empathy. Replace the word 'patient' with 'person'. View that person as family, that one person you care about and would not want to suffer. I always try to replace patients' faces and names with my mother’s and just by doing that, the counseling and the advice I would give became better because I cared for their wellbeing and not how much they were going to spend. People notice these “little” things and with that, you build trust with your patients and hey, profit follows. If I trust you with my complicated diabetes, when I want to get a cough mixture, who do I come to? I come to you and profit follows 😊. Be comfortable with sending patients home with a home remedy for simple ailments, not just upselling stuff. It's not worth it! Your role is to help patients. Everything else follows.

IPSF AfRO: Who do you admire within and beyond the pharmaceutical industry?

Mitchelle: Within the pharmaceutical industry, I would say Mr Sherpard Mudzingwa, the Zimbabwe Pharmaceutical Students Association's (ZPSA) advisor and  mentor. His work ethics and passion for the industry are beyond measure. Most importantly, his passion for building young pharmacists is incredible! ZPSA would not have hosted all the international conferences we hosted till date if it were not for his guidance and belief in students. Beyond the industry, I have a couple of women I admire. My late mother, Lillian Bvute, is at the top. A trailblazer and powerful woman who taught me 3/4 of the things I know in life, who educated me and pushed me to go beyond expectations and be strong and confident in who I am. I would not be the woman I am today without her loving and strong guidance. I wish to be even half the woman she was! The other women I admire mostly because of their strength and leadership are Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and the late Maya Angelou (I love love her poetry 😊). I like all her poems! But I will go with Still I rise. It speaks to me on a whole different level because I have risen from so many situations in my life and I am still rising!

IPSF AfRO: Leadership continues to be one of the critical 21st century skills for the workplace. How did your university leadership experiences prepare you for your current professional leadership responsibilities?

Mitchelle: Yes, you are right. Leadership is indeed critical. Being a student leader taught me a lot of patience and hardwork! Now, when I take on leadership roles at work or anywhere for that matter, I fully understand that I am committing to a second job. On the flip side, you gain a lot more than you lose, really! So I am not hesitant to raise my hand to volunteer and take on leadership roles. Yes, you put in the work but as you do so, you improve your skills and that’s something you should not take for granted. You learn patience and resilience. Being a leader can be a rollercoaster at times but with the right tools and skills, you can achieve a lot.

IPSF AfRO: Inter-professional collaboration continues to be essential for optimal patient-oriented care. How can this be better actualized in practice?

Mitchelle: Yes, this is important and I cannot stress this enough! Communication, respect and more communication. Once we all realize we are one body with one goal (improved patient health outcomes), we will work well together. Every part of the body (healthcare system) has a unique role that should be recognized, valued and respected. Once we implement this analogy, patient-oriented care will become a breeze as we all support each other to reach the common goal of improving patient health outcomes. Boundaries are maintained, communication lines are kept open, no one’s job is compromised, the patient is treated and everyone is happy! That’s the goal.

IPSF AfRO: Do share what you do at careerpalz.org.

Mitchelle: CareerPalz is a mentoring and skills development nonprofit startup focusing on foreign students and young professionals in the US. My husband and I co-founded the nonprofit last year after spending some time mentoring students individually and realizing that the need was bigger. Scaling up, we have been working on supporting students in building their soft and professional skills to help them succeed in launching their careers mostly in the US. It’s hard  moving to a different continent, let alone establishing one's career, so we are trying to make it less painful. Our focus is on mentorship, résumé, interviewing, job search, networking and skills development. We are paying it forward because we have been helped before too.

IPSF AfRO: You two are doing an incredible work. Kudos! I see that you have research experiences especially with autism spectrum disorder. Could you share a bit about that?

Mitchelle: I was a research assistant during graduate school (pursuing public health already). I have always been interested in behavioral and developmental disorders, especially how we are still lagging in terms of data in Africa. So this was a way for me to get in-depth knowledge of how research on Autism was being conducted in the US and how I can contribute to such in the future. That is on my bucket list but of course, I'm focusing on one thing at a time. 🙂

IPSF AfRO: So why did you decide to transition from retail to public health?

Mitchelle: Being in retail gave me a glimpse of public health from the stories patients would share when I asked them why they were not being adherent or why they refused to seek medical help earlier etc. I realized then that healthcare was not just about general supply of services and medications, but tailored supply — matching all we do as pharmacists with the needs of the public which differ from area to area due to other factors like transport, housing and food security etc. I felt that I was not equipped enough to think in that broad sense at that time, that’s why I pursed a degree in Public Health. So for me, it’s not a complete transition but an extension, as I now get to use both my clinical and public health skills for my greater goal of bridging the gap between public health and pharmacy.

IPSF AfRO: Interesting! What necessary steps did you take to facilitate the transition?

Mitchelle: I did my research online on which programs aligned with my goals and the various institutions where they were offered. I settled for a  Masters in Public health, focusing on Policy and Management and I applied to schools online. I know people may think there's more, but you literally just search online, open school websites, look up their requirements and apply. 🙂  It's that easy.

IPSF AfRO: What advice do you have for pharmacists who would like to transition from one field to another?

Mitchelle: Make sure you have a long-term goal and a meaningful reason before pressing the transition button. There is a learning curve that you can never be prepared for, especially if you are moving from a defined role like I did. If you are a retail pharmacist, you have specific roles that differ slightly in different countries but it’s the same at the end of the day. Now, moving to a broader industry means you have to learn new skills and adjust your work style. Same goes if you are switching fields or industries completely. You must be prepared for the adjustments including giving up your “title” in some cases. Do your research and talk to people who did similar transitions and you will learn more. One thing for sure is that you can succeed in any area. As long as another human being has done it, you can also do it.

IPSF AfRO: What advice do you have for pharmacy students who are a bit confused about the area of practice they should opt for?

Mitchelle: I would say, start volunteering in different fields before you graduate. That way you will get a feel of different areas and notice what makes you happy and do that. If your country does not offer rotational programs in different fields of pharmacy, reach out to seniors in the field and ask to shadow them in their line of work and you are sure to get an overview of what it is that pharmacists in hospital, retail, industry or regulatory pharmacy do. If volunteering is not an option, schedule informational interviews with the said individuals and learn from them as they share their work and experiences with you. You just have to ask. The worst you can get is a no, and that won't kill you. 😉

IPSF AfRO: What's your favorite meal?

Mitchelle: Favorite meal is Sadza (Ugali, Isitschawala, Pap, Nsima — many Africans eat this in different versions) and hard chicken stew.

IPSF AfRO : If you had to serve as a tour guide to a foreigner, which part of Zimbabwe would be a must-visit?

Mitchelle: I would take them to the ghetto and rural areas so that they see and experience everyday living of majority of the locals. This will be the best way to learn about a different culture and be immersed in the day-to-day life.  A lot of times, foreigners are shown the big cities and tourist sites but they don’t get to meet the lovely, friendly and humble locals in non-commercial environments.

IPSF AfRO: How much of an African are you? 😊 Which African countries have you visited?

Mitchelle: I am 100% African!  A queen of the motherland, born and raised in Zimbabwe. I have visited:

South Africa 🇿🇦

Zambia 🇿🇲

Tanzania 🇹🇿

Kenya 🇰🇪

Ethiopia 🇪🇹

IPSF AfRO: Which country (anywhere) will you like to visit next?

Mitchelle: I want to go to all African countries. 🙂 I know that sounds like a lot but I have many IPSF AfRO brothers and sisters I promised to visit across Africa. I will probably start with DRC because I love dancing. 😂

IPSF AfRO: What kind of music is your favourite? 😁

Mitchelle: Honestly, I listen to anything that has a good beat... It depends on the mood. 😀

IPSF AfRO: What is the best childhood experience you've had?

Mitchelle: I don’t remember a whole lot but I particularly remember one. In crèche, I had the best teacher whom we were supposed to call “Aunty Chikarango” and I used to think she was an actual angel with her big smiles, so bubbly and always giving hugs. 🙂  She was my childhood role model. I remember visiting her when I was about 24 and I sat on her lap just like old times.

 

IPSF AfRO: Which languages do you speak?

Mitchelle: I  speak two languages, Shona and English.

IPSF AfRO: When you're not volunteering, leading teams or doing any serious work, how do you spend your time?

Mitchelle: I have developed new hobbies during this COVID-19 lockdown. I have been cooking and baking, putting those pharmaceutical compounding lessons to good use. So I cook, take a picture, post and eat. 😂😂 I have even started an Instagram account (@the_queen_chello) just for fun.

IPSF AfRO: Any final words?

Mitchelle: Aim to live a life of excellence, pushing yourself to be a better version of yourself each passing day. Don’t stop learning, keep improving yourself because the world is depending on you. And remember, patients first then, profits follow. 🙂

IPSF AfRO: It has been an incredible time with you, Pharm Mitchelle Masuko Choga. I do wish you a fantastic experience at Merck, FIP and all the amazing exploits which the future holds. Thank you so much for your time. Please share how you may be contacted by IPSFers who would like to connect with you. 😊

Mitchelle: Thank you. It was great connecting with you and going down memory lane. My email address is [email protected]. I can be reached on LinkedIn as well.

 

This interview was conducted by Pharm Taiwo Olawehinmi, on the auspices of the IPSF Media & Publications Subcommittee. It was an immense pleasure to learn from Pharm Mitchelle Masuko Choga. We hope that her story has given you a stimulus to do more and be more. Keep thriving! Viva la pharmacie !