Shay Roth talks with others about her work.
Shay Roth talks with others about her work.
Courtesy of Shay Roth

Shay Roth: Health literacy warrior

Shay Roth graduates from the University of Pittsburgh for the second time this spring — this time as a published author.

“It’s funny — I never expected it to snowball into what it’s become, but it doesn’t feel like work when you’re passionate about it,” Roth said. 

She first received her Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences in April 2022 and has continued on to work towards her Doctor of Pharmacy degree. During her graduate program at Pitt, she has also pursued concentrations in global health and pharmacotherapy during graduate school. Soon, Roth will begin her residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a Health-System Pharmacy Administration Resident. During this period, Roth will also be pursuing a Masters of Business Administration at Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business.

Roth lists off her accomplishments in a casual manner, as if her six years at Pitt — “That’s a quarter of my life now, which is crazy,” Roth said — are not much to note in comparison to her peers. But not many have published their own series of children’s books while attending higher education.

Roth said her debut book, co-authored by Pitt alumna Jaccie Hisashima, explains what a pharmacist is to kids and what one can do with a pharmacy degree.

“Pitt is really big into recruitment for high school, but there wasn’t really any resources available for middle school or younger,” Roth said. “And what we found is that there are a lot of books out there — but none of them were really written from the pharmacist’s point of view. And none of them showed that a pharmacist can help you manage your disease and help you be successful in doing that.” 

Roth said she had always dreamed of writing a children’s book and felt lucky to have been able to recognize that dream three times. Roth’s second and third books “Diabetes, Pharmacy, and Me!: Understanding Childhood Diabetes,” and “Asthma, Pharmacy and Me!: Understanding Childhood Asthma and How Pharmacists Can Help,” aim to teach children management skills of long-term diseases. 

Growing up, long before her foray into pharmaceutical studies, Roth dealt with health struggles of her own.

“I had a lot of hearing surgeries and problems with my ears, so I was constantly going to [the] Children’s [hospital] in Pittsburgh,” Roth said. Each appointment caused her to miss a day of school.

The four-hour round trip commute between her hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh enlightened her to issues of disproportionate access to healthcare. 

“That really kind of just struck something in me when I was young — that I wanted to increase healthcare access — and I wanted to be a healthcare provider,” Roth said. 

However, Roth had no commitments to a specific career in the medical field and maintained an open mind as opportunities presented themselves naturally. 

“As I progressed throughout high school and everything, I started taking more advanced science classes and I really, really liked chemistry. And that’s whenever I initially thought, ‘You know, maybe I should start looking into pharmacy,’” Roth said. “I didn’t even know half the careers you can do, and I feel like I’m still learning so much about the field and learning that there’s so much you can do with the pharmacy degree.”

Now, nearing the end of her time in the School of Pharmacy, Roth laughs at her younger self, who had no desire to even attend Pitt. 

“Honestly, I thought it was gonna be too big for me, because I’m from such a small town,” Roth said. 

Though her parents ultimately forced her to tour Pitt’s campus, Roth found herself right at home.

“There’s 118 people in my class, so it’s a small cohort. So you really get to know your professors and you really get to know your classmates. You have that personalized relationship, even at a big university,” Roth said.

Roth said she formed an especially influential relationship with Ashley Yarabinec, a professor who advised Roth as she dove into the experiential element of her curriculum. The two worked together to develop a personalized clinical rotation plan that would allow Roth to explore all the areas of pharmacy that held interest for her. 

“[Roth] spent one of those five-week blocks with me and we designed a new type of rotation [in which] she was able to see a whole bunch of different areas of pharmacy practice in a really short period of time,” Yarabinec, associate director of experiential learning at the school of pharmacy, said.

This rotation emphasized reflection, teaching Roth to recognize her personal and professional values and how to incorporate them into her identity as a pharmacist, Yarabinec said.

The relationship between Roth and Yarabinec evolved into a mentorship over time. This led to Roth eventually approaching Yarabinec with one of her most ambitious endeavors yet — her first children’s book, “All Aboard the Rx-Express!” 

The book had such a positive reception from the Pitt community following its release that Roth decided to write a second children’s book. Recently retired, former associate dean Randall Smith approached Roth and Hisashima with the idea to focus on Type 1 diabetes. 

“Ironically enough, after the book came out, I was actually diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which was crazy, because it was a year after we had published it,” Roth said. “But I think that put it in perspective, for me even more, that even at my age, then having been a pharmacy student for five years, and having taken endocrinology classes, how overwhelming that diagnosis still was.”

The decision to subsequently focus on asthma in Roth’s next book manifested due to the disease’s prevalence in children and from the desire to further bridge gaps in health literacy as early as possible. Along with asthma, the book also discusses the role of the pharmacist in learning to manage the disease.

“Pharmacists play such a big role in counseling and how to use an inhaler, so we wanted to highlight that and just the importance of having an asthma action plan. So you’re prepared whenever you do need help,” Roth said. “The earlier you can teach that to a kid is so vital to their success in their health throughout their lives.”

The feedback Roth has received so far has made the experience all the more rewarding. 

“We’ll get notes from parents sometimes saying, like ‘Oh, I read this to my kid,’ or ‘Oh, I read this to the sibling and they finally understand,’ and that just makes it all so worth it,” Roth said. 

Yet somehow Roth knew this journey had just begun.

Carla Medina-Gil first encountered Roth’s books during office hours with Yarabinec. Her desire to be involved with Roth’s work was instantaneous. 

Medina-Gil frequented clinics with her mother throughout her childhood.

“There were always resources in Spanish and English in California,” Medina-Gil said. “However, Pittsburgh lacks bilingual and multicultural resources. So I was like, [Roth’s book] would be a great resource for Spanish-speaking children if these were available in Spanish.” 

Yarabinec agreed wholeheartedly and encouraged Medina-Gil to connect with Roth. Medina-Gil quickly became part of the team as a translator.

“I didn’t think it was possible until I talked to Shay Roth and she was like ‘Yeah, this is very possible. Let’s do it together,’” said Medina-Gil.

The Spanish editions of the series became available to the public throughout 2023. Recently, Roth and Medine-Gil received a grant from the Pennsylvania Pharmacy Association. This money will transform their work and allow them to expand their health literacy efforts. 

“We’re going to work on getting those books out into the communities through different community pharmacies, libraries and just community centers for kids,” Roth said about their plans to utilize the funding.

Though the two are now partners in this health literacy mission, Medina-Gil said she still views Roth and her work as an inspiration.

“Shay is definitely a leader in her field of work, and I can see her doing many great things after she becomes a pharmacist,” Medina-Gil said.

Roth wanted to thank the following people for their contributions to and support for her project: Jaccie Hisashima, Carla Medina-Gil, Dr. Amy Donihi, Dr. Roberta Farrah, Dean Randy Smith, Dr. Ashley Yarabinec, Dr. Martha Ndung’u, Dean Patricia Kroboth and Dean Amy Seybert.