Class of 2020: Dena Kota will use pharmacy degree to help older adults live healthier lives

Kota, who earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology from VCU in 2008, is graduating this spring from the School of Pharmacy and will put her credentials to work as an ambulatory care pharmacist.

Portrait of Dena Kota. Banner says "Class of 2020" with V C U logo.
Dena Kota, who earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology from VCU in 2008, is graduating this spring with a Pharm.D and will put her credentials to work as an ambulatory care pharmacist. (Courtesy photo)

Though VCU will not hold an in-person commencement ceremony this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university will host a virtual commencement celebration May 8 and spring graduates will be invited to participate in the university's formal commencement ceremony on Dec. 12. In these challenging times, thousands of students will earn their degrees this spring. These are some of their stories.

Dena Kota earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in 2008. She then worked for seven years in a Department of Defense lab before deciding to return to VCU to earn a Pharm.D. from the VCU School of Pharmacy.

Now she hopes to put both credentials to use working as an ambulatory care pharmacist — a pharmacist who works with patients in an outpatient setting — and helping older adults live happier and healthier lives.

“There are numerous models of ambulatory care but pharmacists are often responsible for helping a care team manage a patient's chronic disease states and meet goals of care with a focus on how medications play a part in those goals,” Kota said. “I like helping older adults manage medications and making sense of it. Older adults often write off side effects to just getting older. I can make the quality of their lives better.”

Kota homed in on ambulatory care while working as part of a team in a family medicine practice more heavily geared to geriatrics. And although her Ph.D. and Pharm.D. studies have taken place at different times, they complement each other well, Kota said. 

“I have a great foundation and understanding of pharmacology — how a drug works in the body — from my Ph.D. studies,” Kota said. “That helps when managing medications and chronic disease states for patients.”

A person dressed in colonial-era clothing in front of a building.
Kota in front of the apothecary in Colonial Williamsburg, where she completed a five-week internship. (Bill Monroe)

Kota, 38, is a married mother of three elementary school-age children. She lived in Williamsburg while attending pharmacy school and completed most of her fourth year — a year consisting of clinical rotations — closer to her home, in the Williamsburg and Newport News areas.

“Juggling all my responsibilities was certainly challenging but it also made me very efficient with my time management,” Kota said. “I just took things one day at a time and had great family support from my husband and parents. I was able to use my commute time [to campus] to listen to relevant podcasts that helped with my studies and kept me up to date on current pharmacy practice trends. In a way, everything I had going on forced me to take a more balanced approach to school.”

During her rotations in the pharmacy program, Kota worked at a geriatric assessment facility helping patients with dementia and their caregivers navigate health care. The collaborative team was made up of nurses, pharmacists, doctors and social workers.

“I look at what they are struggling with, if their medications are working, the side effects, what needs to be changed,” Kota said.

A unique internship

During the fourth year of the pharmacy program — the year VCU students travel across the world for a series of five-week internships in professional settings — Kota took a break from the modern world. Instead of an internship in a hospital or retail pharmacy (places that pharmacists can anticipate working) she donned 18th-century clothing for an internship at the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary Shop in Colonial Williamsburg. 

A person wearing colonial-era clothing inside of an apothecary shop. Bottles and wares line the wall behind them and on the table in front.
At the apothecary, Kota prepared examples of colonial-era medicines, pored over old medical recipes and explained to visitors the work of a druggist in the days of Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton. (Bill Monroe)

The apothecary, a 20th-century reproduction of the shop that existed at the site on Duke of Gloucester Street, had up to 600 visitors a day, according to Colonial Williamsburg. Kota and her coworkers demonstrated and explained for them the ways an apothecary was a center of colonial life. The shop was a source of medicine, advice and everyday goods — chalky pills for heartburn, ointments and Epsom salts for aches, jars of leaves and bark for other ailments.

“I highly recommend it [for pharmacy students],” said Kota, who was the first VCU pharmacy student and only the fourth pharmacy student ever to participate in the Colonial Williamsburg rotation. “It’s just different. It’s not something that’s directly related to pharmacy today. You do research on 18th-century medicine. It’s a late-1700s practicing apothecary. I learned a lot. It was cool to work with the staff and see how they brought history to life. I got to make medicine with 18th-century tools and scales, including dried plants.”

During the rotation, Kota did research on the historical methods and measures and did a lot of public speaking, including to her older daughter’s class during a field trip to the attraction.

‘Self-reliant and focused’

Kota’s professors and mentors remarked on her engaging personality, integrity, professionalism and service at VCU. She served on the Class of 2020 scholarship committee and as the scholarship chair of Rho Chi, the academic honor society for pharmacy.

“Dena was always self-reliant and focused,” said Lauren Caldas, Pharm.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy & Outcomes Science in the School of Pharmacy. “She consistently served as an example of professional behavior and classroom etiquette for her peers. She came to our school with significant education and work experience, but still welcomed my advice and help.” 

Kota said her professors were always willing to go the extra mile, whether that be allowing students to shadow them with patients, helping with research or just be a sounding board for career advice. Post-graduation, Kota is working with a medical group in the Williamsburg/Newport News area to incorporate ambulatory care pharmacy into their practice. 

“I am very excited about the new position and having the opportunity to grow my skills as a clinical pharmacist,” Kota said. “I look forward to working with patients to help them meet their goals and improve their quality of life.”

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