For Nicolas Palacios, just earning an MBA wasn’t enough.
With a passion for healthcare and an interest in business, he is pursuing both an MBA at the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Kenan-Flagler Business School and his PharmD at UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. And this summer, he is completing an internship at Amgen, in the company’s Commercial Leadership Program.
Despite his go-getter attitude, Palacios has faced challenges along the way as a Latino and second-generation immigrant as well as a first-generation college student. We recently spoke with this second-year Consortium member about his path to business and pharmacy school, the real and perceived obstacles he’s faced and his thoughts on the future of healthcare post-COVID-19.
What sparked your interest in pharmacy?
I wasn’t really focused on much in terms of a career in high school until I started working at CVS. I moved back to the pharmacy and that was when I really started developing an interest in the patient dynamic and interacting with people. Of course, working in the traditional retail setting, you meet all sorts of people, but in the pharmacy, you meet people much more at a time of need. That was when I really started developing empathy for patients and seeing the complexities of the healthcare system.
I pursued more positions after that in higher-acuity pharmacy roles — sometimes more removed from patients — but that had more of a science [focus]. That was really what shaped my undergraduate decision to pursue biochemistry. It was really a combination of patient interaction and the science, and being able to apply what I learned in the workplace.
I knew I wanted to get into healthcare. I didn’t know where I would go, but as I got to know pharmacy more, that’s when I really became focused on it over everything else.
What about business — when did your interest in that develop? What made you decide to pursue pharmacy and business?
My interest in business actually developed when I did my master’s in biotechnology. It was a combination master’s of biotech and master’s of business administration; I didn’t pursue the MBA purely because of time constraints. I was doing that knowing I was going to go to pharmacy school later, so it was never the be-all and end-all. But that was the first time I got exposure to business classes and business people.
At the same time, I was working at JAFRA Cosmetics International, which was a huge detour on my resume that ended up being useful because I was in R&D but was interacting with other departments like marketing and manufacturing. So, coming to UNC, I knew business was interesting, and I knew that the pharmaceutical industry would be a good place for me because I already had a biotech background.
What attracted you to The Consortium?
For me, it was a group of like-minded individuals. I’ve met business students before, and I love the fact that I felt like I could identify more with the people in The Consortium than the average group of business students. The other factor was the built-in network. I do believe you have to create your own opportunity, but knowing that there are other people who’ve come before me from similar backgrounds — who have accomplished things I could’ve never dreamed I would have the opportunity to accomplish — was really attractive.
How do your pharmacy and business background compliment each other, and how have they aided you?
The big thing in terms of opportunities at pharma companies is that a lot of individuals don’t have a background in healthcare. Some people come from healthcare consulting, but many people have not been in hospitals or visited clinics and had the exposure that I have. So I feel that the combination helps me provide this perspective, especially in meetings.
All through my internship at GlaxoSmithKline, this was prominent, because the average healthcare marketer or finance person doesn’t normally have this exposure. But I can help provide that. Also, the business side helps you be a little more concise and a little more [focused on the] bottom line up front.
As a second-generation immigrant and first-generation student, what hurdles have you faced when it comes to pursuing your goals?
The big thing is that there’s little-to-no guidance. I was just talking to a friend whose parents are both doctors and whose older sister’s a doctor. So, to become a doctor, [he has] a little more of an advantage. He’s familiar with the process. He’s familiar with everything that goes into it and the foresight you have to have to prepare academically and professionally to apply. That was something that I was never afforded. That’s why I feel so strongly that you have to create your own opportunities.
Even in undergrad, at my small, Hispanic-Serving Institution, they didn’t have any advisors to help you get into pharmacy school. So, it was all about me doing that research on my own. My father graduated high school, but he never went to college and it’s the same for the rest of my family — or less. So it wasn’t a question of whether they could help; they just [offered] support.
Were there additional challenges you faced pursuing advanced degrees?
I think the big thing that was hard for me was knowing my worth. I have imposter syndrome that I still carry with me to this day. Especially with pharmacy school, I really underestimated my potential. I think that was kind of inherent due to those years of having to figure it out on my own and not going to the best undergraduate institution. I didn’t understand what I could add. A good example is when I was applying to pharmacy school.
I had an OK application, but I didn’t think it screamed “accept me.” I applied to schools in the top 10 but also in the middle and in the bottom one hundred. I immediately got an interview with the No. 1 pharmacy school. I never thought that would happen. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’ll just throw that in there, too.” I was not set on the No. 1 school; I was trying to be realistic. So, what has affected me is really [understanding] what I could accomplish and understanding my own worth.
How has your background affected you in your pursuit of your goals?
At first, I felt like it was a hindrance. I felt bias all through high school and in college, being Latino. I think that fed into [my low] self-esteem and lack of feeling that I could achieve what I wanted to achieve.
I had this double whammy of no family members who have graduated from college and my background that made me acutely aware of who I was. But now I see it more as something that I can utilize. Because I sometimes feel outgunned or outmatched, I tend to work harder and pursue things with more vigor than I think I would have had I not faced those challenges. It’s my mission to achieve everything I can and go as far as I can. Looking back at my family and seeing what each generation has done before me, I feel like it’s my responsibility to carry the torch.
How has being part of The Consortium helped you overcome those challenges to achieve your goals?
The Consortium has been wonderful because you meet other people just like you. Seeing other Latino men and women ahead of me achieving [their goals], seeing peers who have done even more than I have, who have faced more adversity than I have, and meeting people from all over the country with common goals is really inspiring.
You’ve dedicated much of your time to helping others — especially underrepresented students interested in pharmacy and healthcare — pursue their dreams. Why are you so passionate about helping others in this way?
It’s for the same reasons that I felt like I didn’t have anybody to turn to, I didn’t have anybody to talk to. And after getting more and more involved, whether it was with organizations in undergrad or The Consortium, I’ve found that there are so many individuals who have felt just like me. [It helps] when you see individuals who look like you or who come from a nontraditional background. I always tell these students that I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. I didn’t have a 4.0. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pursue these things.
I think it’s important to maintain these relationships going forward to kind of carry the torch, as I said, because so many mentors ahead of me did the same for me, and without them, I don’t think I’d be here today.
You’re entering healthcare at an unusual time. So, what are your thoughts on the future of healthcare, particularly when it comes to COVID-19 and its impact?
It’s been a wonderful time to be in healthcare. Not a wonderful time in the country or the world, but I think this is one of those times where all eyes are on this industry, and I feel very fortunate to be pursuing a career in healthcare right now.
In general, I think this will accelerate innovation in healthcare — much quicker than it would have in any other industry — because of the emphasis on not only vaccine development and more pragmatic problems, but other things as well, such as [doing testing from] your car. I think this will forever change those parts of the industry, and that makes it that much more exciting to be a part of.
From a diversity perspective, I am concerned about vaccine administration and making sure that those who have doubts and have historically had issues with the medical community — black and brown communities in general — still pursue the vaccine.
What do you hope to do after graduation?
I hope to work in commercialization or marketing at a pharmaceutical company because this is where I feel I can best combine my previous healthcare experience and education.