Pharmacy professor in Duluth helps U of M students explore medicine through theater


Paul Ranelli, professor of social pharmacy at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, teamed up with theater professors Sonja Kuftinec and Luverne Seifert at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota to imagine the structure of the Creative Collaborative class of one semester.

Because 80% of people take medication, Ranelli wanted to find a way to represent and explore the common experience through the visual arts. After many hours of researching with librarians, they developed a program centered on the “pharmakon” – a philosophical idea about the multifaceted use of medicine and its history.

“In the end, we came across this idea of ​​a pharmakon,” said Kuftinec. “Pharmakon is a very interesting term in relation to both medicine and drama, for it means medicine or healing, as well as poison and scapegoat.”

Paul Ranelli (Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota)

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The course takes place in a hybrid format in person and online due to the pandemic, which allows Ranelli to join as a guest instructor from Duluth to Zoom. Its structure is quite abstract, intended to inspire discussion and research on a range of topics, including representations of healing and poison in Greek tragedy, pharmacy history and symbolism, cultural acceptance and societal medicine, the use of natural and prescription medicine, and the personal experiences of students.

But if the course path, or “journey,” covers large and complex topics, the objectives are slightly easier to understand. Theater students, who are mostly juniors and seniors, are not asked to memorize a script and act it out. Instead, they are encouraged to take a semester’s research and compile the results into a performance to convey the research to the public.

“He communicates on science,” Ranelli said. “It’s a great way to enlighten people and not have to go through a textbook to learn something and discuss it after it’s done.”

Seifert worked with scientific researchers to help them convey their findings in a clear and concise manner. He has worked with many academics so that they can present their research in an easily understandable way that will help them secure funding and explain the meaning of the material.

In a pre-classic interview, students were asked to imagine a medicine to cure something in the world. A medicine to return to the past ages that you lived. A medicine that gives you a heightened sense of awareness and understanding of the world around you.

As the student explained what their medicine was doing, they were asked to imagine how the medicine was taken. Is it ingested? Smoke? Absorbed through the skin? Next: What are the side effects or dark sides of the drug? Turns out going back to the age of 12 also brings back some intense emotions that weren’t as fun as you remembered. Coming out of heightened awareness of the world around you can make you want to understand better.

“They are really very creative and interesting, and it gave us a better understanding of how the students viewed drugs as medicine and where they imagined experiencing pain,” said Kuftinec. “It became a real common thread throughout the course – where pain lives inside and outside of us and between us, and how can we systematically heal it.”

Siefert and Kuftinec said the class structure brings everyone together to collaborate as students – even teachers.

“There are the things that we bring, there are the things that they bring, and now we’re at the end trying to figure out how we sort of make a sort of narrative of all these little investigations that we got involved in,” Kuftinec said.

Students were able to share their personal experiences with drugs, whether used as a means of control – such as anti-anxiety, birth control or pain relievers – or for recreation.

But while most students have some experience with medication, they are not necessarily pharmacy experts. Ranelli introduced them to pharmacy subjects like the Bol d’Hygieia, the ancient symbol of pharmacy based on the Greek goddess of health and hygiene. It means the poison of a snake and the bowl to create a remedy. Many early ideas about health centered around the idea that illnesses were punishments from the gods, Ranelli said.

The theater also has strong Greek roots, like the ancient Greek tragedies which frequently explored intoxication and poison. Amber Frederick, a young theater and social justice student from Mankato, Minnesota, said one of their favorite aspects of the class was learning more about these historic connections.

“I think this connection between medicine and ritual – all of these Greek notions – has been really interesting, especially after studying some of these connections in Greek theater,” said Frederick.

Ranelli also asked students to explore how pharmacy was portrayed in popular culture and healthcare theatrical performances. Realizing that medicine can be both helpful and harmful, the class sparked discussions about how the healthcare system works in modern society, including how it can be oppressive or restrictive.

For example, student Emily Vaillancourt has carried out a project on the accessibility of birth control to women over the decades. The one-minute video series shows how over the years pharmacies and medical practices change, but it remains more difficult for women to get birth control than it is for men to get condoms.

Frederick said that due to the pandemic, the online aspect of the classroom added to the learning environment as they were able to have instructors and guest speakers from outside the Twin Cities region, including Ranelli.

The semester will end with a final performance in early May, which will incorporate both virtual and in-person hybrid performance, similar to the hybrid structure of the COVID-19 class.

The performance will feature a good deal of audience engagement and aims to elicit questions about how healthcare and medicine might change to help more people, Frederick said.

“It’s that kind of healing journey from a public perspective,” Frederick said.

Ranelli said the class was an open-minded experience, and he hopes the show leaves audiences thinking, “Hmm, I’ve never thought of it that way before.” He said he would like the class or a similar concept to one day become available at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“Right now we’re trying to get through this semester,” Ranelli said.

As the semester comes to a close and the class prepares for the final performance, Seifert believes that students have learned to interpret research and problem solve by working on communication.

“Our students are not just interpreters of the work of others, they are creators,” Seifert said. “I feel really good that they are stepping into the world in everything they do, whether it’s theater or not. They are going to be a tremendous force to change the world and they have the tools to be able to do so.


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