Amira Guirguis was described by her nominator as a “true role model for women” and her achievements are all the more impressive when you realise how hard she has had to fight for them.
Guirguis is now an internationally renowned expert in novel psychoactive substances (NPS) and is soon to be the MPharm programme director for the University of Swansea school of pharmacy. But if you met her 12 years ago, you might be forgiven for thinking her dream of pursuing a career in pharmacy was not going to amount to very much.
In Egypt, where Guirguis grew up, she missed the entry requirements for pharmacy school by 0.5% — the narrowest of margins. Afterwards, she changed direction and decided to train as an accountant.
Fast forward a few years, aged 32, Guirguis moved to the UK as a single mother. Here, she was finally able to pursue her original dream of studying for a pharmacy degree, which she did alongside learning English.
It is perhaps an understatement when she says she found the transition “very difficult, at every level” but this only pushed her to work even harder to succeed, while also juggling a job at a LloydsPharmacy branch and carrying out laboratory research.
At this time her daughter was studying for her A-levels and would later attend the same university as Guirguis to do her own pharmacy degree, while Guirguis was working towards a PhD in NPS.
It was while working in a hospital that Guirguis first witnessed the consequences of people buying ‘legal highs’ online. She realised that she knew nothing about them and neither did anyone else.
“I knew there were a lot of drugs being sold online and [that] we didn’t know anything about them, [and] yet they were leading to hospital admissions and deaths,” she recalls.
Her work in the field of NPS led to her receiving an award from the Joint Pharmaceutical Analysis Group in 2014 and this was when she started to “become really proactive”.
Guirguis reached out to several local authorities and did some training on NPS for Hillingdon Council. “That was really a breakthrough because everyone started to speak up saying that it was a problem in A&E, that it was a problem in prisons, and so on,” she explains.
It was her contribution to a new section on the topic in Medicines, Ethics and Practice (MEP) that triggered the domino effect that eventually led to the establishment of the first Home Office-licensed pharmacist-led drug checking service in the UK. She was principal investigator and co-lead of the service, which she ran from the University of Hertfordshire, using the technology developed during her PhD.
The trial of the anonymous service, which notifies users if drugs are contaminated, was covered in the news, with media coverage of the service reaching 68 million views in the UK and 9 million views in Australia in days.
Guirguis has become a leader in her field, advising regulators and the Home Office on NPS and the drug checking service. She is the scheduled drugs lead on the science and research committee for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, helping to shape its policy on the rescheduling of medical cannabis. She also devised a briefing document for the General Pharmaceutical Council regarding fitness-to-practise issues surrounding cannabidiol (CBD) oil and false claims such as the myth that it is legal to possess and sell CBD-containing products as long as they have less than 0.2% THC.
Her expertise has been called upon in several high profile legal cases, including a Coroner’s inquest into ecstasy-related deaths at music festivals in the Australian state of New South Wales.
These accolades already amount to an impressive curriculum vitae, but it doesn’t stop there. Guirguis is currently MPharm programme director at the University of Swansea and is developing a new school of pharmacy with “a modern approach”. The school is now working towards the final step of accreditation and will have its first intake in 2021.
“We are aiming to have students who graduate as prescribers and that changes the whole story. Where everyone else is working to refurbish their programmes, we’re starting from scratch.”
Getting that off the ground is Guirguis’s priority at the moment, but she also enjoys mentoring a group of newly qualified pharmacists, as well as supervising PhD students.
“That gives me a lot of satisfaction,” she says. “I’ve had times when I’ve struggled a lot; I still sit in meetings and think ‘What am I doing here?’ There have been a lot of mentors who have helped build my confidence and I want to pay that forward.”
- This article was amended on 7 December 2020 to clarify that Guirguis is soon to be the MPharm programme director for the University of Swansea school of pharmacy
“Her passion for pharmacy and developing others is evident in her application and her outstanding achievements”
“Amira has achieved an astonishing amount and is now establishing a new school of pharmacy where she will be able to influence and support a new generation of pharmacists”
“Impressive work in a difficult area and has a positive impact on national policy”
Meet the rest of The Pharmaceutical Journal’s Women to Watch 2020 here.