Meet the Expert: Adam Persky

Dr. Persky applies his training as a researcher to the classroom environment to create new best practices in pharmacy education

Story by Brooks Dareff | Published November 21, 2023

Adam Persky, PhD, headshot taken outdoors

Every UNC Pharmacy School student knows Adam Persky, PhD, clinical professor in the Division of Pharmacotherapy and Experimental Therapeutics (DPET), and since 2022, Associate Dean for Professional Education. Adam has taught the required first-year courses in pharmacokinetics and physiology in each of his 20 years at the School, in the process winning scores of teaching, innovation, and scholarship awards.

“I entered academics with the goal to teach pharmacokinetics because, at most schools of pharmacy, it is one of the most despised courses (it involves math!),” Adam says. While challenging, it’s fair to say PHCY 511 is not despised at the School, as demonstrated by Adam’s many honors, awarded based on student evaluations.

Adam has taught these foundational courses so well—focusing on active learning in the classroom and learning retention—that students in clinical settings many years later draw on them to make critical decisions about patient care.

“I completely credit Dr. Persky’s teaching effectiveness as the reason I was able to recall complex concepts in pathophysiology and pharmacokinetics daily while providing patient care for eight years at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” says Elizabeth Hall, PharmD ’12, in a letter supporting Adam’s successful candidacy for one of his most recent and prestigious honors, the 2023 AACP Robert K. Chalmers Distinguished Pharmacy Educator Award.

Over the years, Adam has tested the effectiveness of this creativity—what works, what doesn’t—by compiling data gleaned from studies he designs that apply his training as a research scientist in a laboratory setting to the authentic environment of the classroom.

This testing sprang from his growing interest in cognitive psychology, how people learn, and how people learn in a lab setting. It materialized through a collaboration with Elizabeth Marsh, PhD, Chair of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke, that resulted in Adam’s first study with a control setting. “Beth showed me how to get the control in a classroom situation without hindering anybody’s learning,” Adam says, explaining “there’s lots of ways to handle this.” One example is using traditional teaching practice as the placebo for topic A in a class and new practice for topic B. “Now I do much more experimental design,” Adam says. “I like having best practice versus new best practice.”

Adam’s extensive publishing, national and international talks, and collaborations with other educators have been widely transformative in the School, the University, and in other disciplines, like dentistry, psychology, chemistry, biology and sports medicine, as well as at other institutions at home and abroad. Yet for some, it’s Adam’s mentorship that most sets him apart. “The insight and time Dr. Persky took to sit down and help me weigh my options was invaluable and led me to where I am today,” says David Steeb, PharmD ’13, now Dean of the College of Global Health at the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis.

Looking back at his childhood in New Jersey, Adam says, “I never imagined I’d be doing what I’m doing now.” At Purdue University he majored in biology and imagined raising a bear cub as a field ecologist (like Marty Stouffer in his TV show Wild America), but soon realized “I don’t like camping.” An animal physiology class was the first where he really had questions—“I fell in love with it”—so he looked at exercise physiology, as he also was interested in sports (and had broken six bones playing soccer).

Adam was accepted into a PhD program in exercise physiology at Penn State. However, the program didn’t offer him funding, so instead he pursued an MS in exercise science at the University of Massachusetts that paid him as a TA. An introvert, his first lecture terrified him. “I never sweated more in my life—but it wasn’t terrible,” he recalls. Over time, teaching became a passion. “I got to know the students,” Adam says. “I got to talk about stuff I really loved talking about. From there I wanted my students to do better than everyone else’s students. So let me go do things to help them do better on exams. Extra review sessions. Extra questions.”

At UMass, Adam studied skeletal muscle physiology under the mentorship of the late Priscilla Clarkson, PhD, and as drugs and sports always came up, he wondered how you would apply a clinical trial to how dietary supplements work. That led to a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Florida, working with Gayle Brazeau, PhD, an authority on drugs and muscles.

Because Adam now wanted to focus on pharmacokinetics, he next came to UNC for a pharmacokinetics/pharmacodynamics fellowship at the School and GlaxoSmithKline. He assumed he’d move on after two years but stayed when he was offered a teaching job. “I was hired to push the boundaries of what can be done in a large class. It was the ideal job,” Adam says. “Basically, I started by improving my course. That led to more people at the school changing their courses. Eventually that led to more people doing educational research.  My talks led to more talks. My research led to more research . . . Soon what I started at the School started to seep out nationally.”

Some of the many, many changes Adam has implemented in 20 years include techniques of active learning, like the flipped classroom, which he initiated within the School; jigsaw or send-a-problem; self-directed learning (which he models); immediate feedback forms; building courses that allow integration and scaffolding; multimedia tools innovation; and ExamSoft.

Now as associate dean, Adam works on the bigger picture of the School’s curriculum. “As a faculty member, you can be focused on your teaching, service and scholarship,” he says. “As a dean, you now are focused on process, bigger picture issues, long-term planning, and people. As such, I had to let go of a good chunk of scholarship and teaching.”

Amid this professional whirlwind is a rich personal life. During the pandemic, Adam married fellow School faculty member Kathryn Fuller, PharmD ’15, twice; first over Zoom (covered by WRAL) on April 4, 2020, then exactly a year later with friends and family in actual attendance. A self-described “pretty good baker” who once vacationed at a culinary institute, Adam also spent the pandemic perfecting bagels (and keeping them away from the family’s three dogs). An admittedly hectic life, he says, but one that still leaves time for Adam and Kathryn to team up around the kitchen table to brainstorm studies on new teaching strategies. “She’s also a very gifted teacher,” Adam says. “She’ll have an idea and I have the knowledge to design it.” And so, on and on, best practices become new best practices.