Alumni Spotlight: Patrick O'Brien, PharmD '89, JD '93

March 5, 2021

Patrick O’Brien, a joint alumnus of the University of Arizona Colleges of Pharmacy and Law, and a member of the National Advisory Board for the College of Pharmacy has one piece of professional advice for students, “Find things that look interesting to you and go do them.”

When he was in pharmacy school searching for a part-time job, Dr. O’Brien took an EMT class that piqued his interest and later became a paramedic. After residency, he decided to pursue another interest by attending the James E. Rogers College of Law. While working at a law firm in Phoenix, his scientific background was instrumental in taking on a groundwater contamination case. Interested in litigation, he joined the trial team, eventually preparing him for a career as a lawyer with the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C. “It just looked fun, probably the smartest decision of my career.”

Dr. O’Brien is now general counsel for Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company that largely works with RNA interference technology. Although he isn’t using his pharmacy training in a traditional sense, Dr. O’Brien sits at a unique vantage point between the fields of pharmacy and law, allowing him to see how the two benefit one another. “We've got these amazingly smart people in our laboratories and they've got great ideas about things that could solve diseases,” explains Dr. O’Brien. “But how do we get those ideas out of their mind and into physical drugs that we can get to our patients? That process is the regulatory process.”

Drug development as it moves from cell culture models to in vivo testing and eventually human clinical trials requires oversight and a thorough risk-benefit analysis to ensure that the team can reasonably move on to the next stage. A regulatory scheme, as Dr. O’Brien describes, acts as a set of guardrails to ensure quality at every level. As a healthcare provider, understanding why those guards have been put in place and how they function can help to produce better outcomes for patients overall.

Coming Full Circle

Attending both pharmacy and law school gave Dr. O’Brien a broad perspective as he entered post-graduate life. It was the straddling of these two worlds, healthcare and law, that made him an advocate for programs like the graduate certificates in Regulatory Science and Health Law that provide the same sort of educational opportunities he once had.

Both programs are a result of a partnership between the Colleges of Pharmacy and Law, after noticing a lack of academic training in this area. The programs offer unique curriculum designed for students and health professionals to acquire a fundamental understanding of the laws, regulations and ethics surrounding the health care industry.

“If you're interested in working in a highly regulated field like healthcare, knowing the regulations at a deeper level gives you an expertise where you can help your colleagues to reach the goals that they're trying to achieve,” explained Dr. O’Brien.

In an effort to make these graduate certificates accessible to more students, Dr. O’Brien contributed toward a scholarship fund dedicated to decreasing the financial burden on those in the programs. Scholarships will be made available to students enrolling in the program for fall 2021.

“My experience in both the College of Pharmacy and the College of Law is that both of those programs had excellent academic faculty that gave me the opportunity to learn as deep as I was willing to go, and as a student, of course, the best thing you can do for yourself, is to is to take full advantage of that,” described Dr. O’Brien. “What I've always found is, when you follow your heart and what looks interesting to you it'll all work out in terms of being valuable in various ways.”

Visit us online for more information on the Regulatory Science and Health Law graduate certificates.

This article was originally published on the College of Pharmacy website.