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Five Questions: Dean of ETSU Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy tells all

Brandon Paykamian • Jan 10, 2019 at 11:43 PM

Before coming to East Tennessee State University’s Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy to serve as its dean, Debbie Byrd had quite the resume and educational background.

Aside from being a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy in 1994, she also obtained a bachelor of science in chemistry at Middle Tennessee State University and went back to school part-time to get her master of business administration from Tennessee Tech.

Byrd also attended Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education Management Development Program and enrolled in the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy Academic Leadership Fellows Program before serving as dean of professional affairs within the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy.

Through that time, her husband Robert — whom she’s been with for nearly 30 years — has been by her side. The couple has two sons, Noah and Nathan. On Thursday, Byrd emailed the Press to tell us more about her career, personal interests, hobbies and more.

Byrd Briefly:

Favorite food: “If I have to choose, Italian food is probably my favorite.”

Hobbies: Running/training for half-marathons.

Pet peeves: Distracted drivers.

Recent Netflix binges: “I cannot wait for the new season of The Crown!”

Favorite qualities in a person: Sense of humor, integrity and work ethic.

What brought you to ETSU? 

I already was familiar with the exceptional quality of the program, the faculty and staff at Gatton College of Pharmacy, so that was the initial draw. During the interview process, I fell in love with the student-centered culture, as well as the Johnson City community and the beautiful VA campus, where our college is housed, along with Quillen College of Medicine and other ETSU Academic Health Sciences Center programs. A unique aspect of our campus is that about half of our pharmacy students are first-generation college students and more than a third hail from rural zip codes. The opportunity to attend pharmacy school here and enter such a rewarding career truly is life changing.

What are some of the biggest changes you have witnessed and are seeing now in the College of Pharmacy?

We have been intentional about telling our story and invested in sharing what Gatton College of Pharmacy has to offer potential students in a way we have never done before. We have only been in existence since 2005, but our students and student organizations already are recognized nationally for their accomplishments and outreach in our community; our faculty continues to be recognized nationally and internationally for their amazing work, and our alumni are making a huge impact in Tennessee and beyond. I expect those trends to continue in the future.

When it comes to ETSU's medical and health care studies, the campus plays a huge role in the region. Could you talk a bit about that role and your thoughts on the role of your college in particular?

As an Academic Health Sciences Center at ETSU, the five colleges (Pharmacy, Medicine, Nursing, Public Health, Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences) have incredible opportunities to collaborate on a number of health care studies. Just a few examples include Dr. Victoria Palau’s work to discover new drugs to treat cancer. Dr. Nick Hagemeier, director of research for ETSU’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, and Dr. Jeff Gray, associate professor of pharmacy practice, helped submit a proposal for research funding to the National Institutes of Health. This research will test a comprehensive approach to reduce opioid overdose deaths in Tennessee and result in one of the largest grants in ETSU’s history. In addition, our students, led by Dr. Sarah Melton, professor of pharmacy practice, have trained literally thousands of health care professionals and members of the community on the administration of naloxone, a life-saving opioid medicine. I could name so many more collaborations!

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing students, staff and campus communities as a whole these days?

Work-life integration, stress management and the importance of resilience are receiving national attention in the health professions and are critical for our students’ success. We have a Student Life and Wellness Committee dedicated to providing activities, events and guest lectures to help with areas like stress, physical and mental health, financial wellness and nutrition, and overall wellbeing. For example, we recently initiated “Phitness Phridays” to promote physical activity among students, staff and faculty. During exams, we bring in therapy dogs and provide massages and snacks for students to help relieve stress.

What's an interesting or "weird" fact about yourself many do not know? 

I became a softball umpire at age 12, following in my dad’s footsteps, and umpired spring, summer and fall for about 10 years. The experience instilled in me core values like hard work, focus and perseverance, character traits I believe every student at Gatton should carry with them in their careers and lives.

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