Major Insight Episode 12 Uncovering the Truth Behind Over-the-Counter Drug Laws

virginia bulger

As recently as May of 2019, an ingredient found in many common over-the-counter drugs was linked to the death of an infant. Curiously, use of this ingredient was still legal, and even FDA approved. This led Virginia Bulger to ask, “why?”

Virginia’s research explores the complex relationship between Congress and the FDA, as well as the impact that lobbyists have on drug regulation legislation. And on this episode, she also talks about how her university experiences can help other aspiring student researchers successfully pursue passion projects of their own.

Featured Majors

Political Science, Business Management

Featured Study Abroad

Jamaica, Middle East, Oman, Abu Dhabi

Featured Internship and Organizations:

Consumer Healthcare Products Association Internship, King Library


Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

James Loy: Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This where we showcase successful students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.

As recently as May of 2019, an ingredient found in many common over-the-counter drugs was linked to the death of an infant. Curiously, use of this ingredient was still legal, and it was even FDA approved. This led Virginia Bulger to try and find out why?

Which then lead her to study the complex relationship between Congress and the FDA, as well as the impact that lobbyists have on drug regulation legislation.

And on this episode, Virginia speaks with Major Insight Host Jacob Bruggeman about her work, and about her own journey of becoming a successful student researcher - including how she learned how to ask the right questions, how topics will evolve over time, and how more aspiring researchers can take advantage of the support and the resources that they too will find along the way.

Jacob Bruggeman: All right, Virginia, welcome to the podcast. So could you begin by telling us a little bit about how you got into research at Miami, what your research interests are, how they're developing?

Virginia Bulger: Yeah, so, I guess, research at the beginning, to me it was just kind of a requirement depending on the class, but-

Jacob Bruggeman: A resume line?

Virginia Bulger: Yeah, exactly. And now that I am in the master's program, research is actually something I'm starting to think about as when you come up with a question or problem and you really want to find the solution and finding, discovering the different ways and resources that you can use to do that is something I've definitely learned with the master's program.

Jacob Bruggeman: In Political science?

Virginia Bulger: Yes, in political science. And so that's really changed my outlook, especially this past year on research and what I want to do and things that are interesting to me and asking the right questions and getting that specific question to really challenge me and push me outside of my comfort zone.

Jacob Bruggeman: Excellent. So when, if there was a particular moment, did you realize that research was something for you to engage with rather than just have to do?

Virginia Bulger: Yeah, so that would probably be my freshman year when I studied abroad in Jamaica over J term with the political science department. I was a freshman while no one else on the trip was, so I was the baby, but I was really... Again, it was the first time I was really pushed outside of my comfort zone and really challenged to look at things from a different perspective. And at the end of the trip we had to write a research paper and I wrote mine on what America could learn from Jamaica and Jamaica's culture. And so kind of finding different and unique ways to look at an issue or a scenario and come up with it is kind of how I began to really appreciate and like research. And then with my master's program, the topic I'm doing now is something I'm really interested in and something I enjoy a lot. So getting to learn more about that is definitely a huge factor of wanting to do more research.

Jacob Bruggeman: Give us the spiel. What are you working on now in the master's program? How is it developing? It's ongoing, so we're not expecting you to give us... to defend your thesis per se.

Virginia Bulger: Yeah. So one of the biggest things I've learned in this program is your research topic develops a lot.

Jacob Bruggeman: It does indeed.

Virginia Bulger: So this past summer I was an intern for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and they represent all the over-the-counter drug companies. And one of the things that they were working on was the regulation of OTC drugs. And there are ingredients that are technically legal that are recommended by the FDA to not be used. So while they're approved that you can put them in your drug, you really shouldn't. And so, as recently as May, there was this ingredient called benzocaine, which is like a numbing ingredient that you can find in Orajel or any of those mouth aid stuff. And it was linked to the death of an infant. But the ingredient is still legal because it's still... It takes so long to get the ingredient removed.

Virginia Bulger: So I was really curious as to why this was happening and I started doing some research and found that when the ingredients were first created in 1972 they have never been edited. So it's 20-

Jacob Bruggeman: [crosstalk 00:03:11] same chemical compound.

Virginia Bulger: Yes.

Jacob Bruggeman: Oh, gosh.

Virginia Bulger: So it's 2019 and ingredients have come out that are not good and it's just never been changed. And the only institution that can really change this is Congress. They are the only ones that can give the funds and the resources for the FDA to do this. And so my questions really developed because I wanted to know why Congress wasn't doing this. But again, there is no legislation for me to really test that and to get data. So now it's changed to PAC contributions and lobbyists' influence on drug regulation legislation. And so I'm in the process of doing all of that now, collecting the data and really applying it to different techniques to really see if there is a significant relationship there. And what are those factors. So that's kind of... I think that research is really important too because OTCs are something everyone uses and understanding what you're putting in your body is really important.

Jacob Bruggeman: So OTCs include anything from aspirin to like nutritional supplements, right?

Virginia Bulger: The supplements get a little complicated.

Jacob Bruggeman: A gray area?

Virginia Bulger: Yeah. But so OTCs is your Tylenol, your aspirin, your toothpaste. It includes that.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, that's interesting.

Virginia Bulger: Cough and cold. So everything that you could think of. Yeah, it's just kind of crazy and even what the ingredients are in. So yeah, it's a lot of things and it's something... A lot of things that we are putting in our body we don't even think about as OTC is, like for example, Pepto or something. You're not even thinking about it, you just know it makes you feel better when your stomach's upset. And so stuff like that.

Jacob Bruggeman: Toothpaste is something I never considered, but I guess that is an OTC.

Virginia Bulger: Yeah. So how you know it's an OTC compared to non OTC, sunscreen, for example, is actually an OTC, is if you look on the back of the product it says drug facts and that's how you know it's an OTC.

Jacob Bruggeman: What has been your process at Miami for refining this research and coming to pursue it in this vigorous master's curriculum? Who's been there for you in terms of faculty? Have you taken advantage of any resources on campus?

Virginia Bulger: Yeah, so there's been a variety of stuff on campus. Actually, my internship was through Miami alumni and so I've been in close contact with them and their resources helping me out. I think one of the biggest influencers in this whole process is Dr. Bloom, who was the professor for a few of my master's classes and she really helped, not just me, but a lot of the kids in the program go through this research process, really nailed down our ideas and our questions and really pushed us to ask the right question. You can have your basic question like why is X this, but it's more about getting to that really specific detail that you can actually investigate. She was able to just give you a book off the top of her head that would help you understand bureaucracy better. And I think that was another thing that I didn't really understand going into this master's program that I now, looking back, understand, is it takes a lot of reading and research before you can even start investigating your issue.

Virginia Bulger: And so it took me reading a lot of books about the bureaucracy. It took me a lot of books about reading how Congress and the bureaucracy interact with one another before I could even talk about my research question. And I think that's an important part is you have to understand the basics before you can go any further. And so Dr. Bloom was really good at that and helping you see that you need to read these sources and understand this before you can go further.

Virginia Bulger: Also the library has incredible resources. There's a political science librarian and I met with her and I told her my topic.

Jacob Bruggeman: Is it Jenny Presnell?

Virginia Bulger: Yes. Yeah. And she just found so many different databases I could use and was sending me links and all of this stuff. And I was just so grateful because I finally, in this place of like, "I don't know what's going on," she finally was like, "Start here and we can go from there." And so I think that is the best thing that I've learned is there are... Professors want you to succeed and they want you to Excel and it's not about holding your hand and helping you through. It's about giving you the resources to do it on your own.

Jacob Bruggeman: I agree. And I think you would agree that professors at Miami seem to be particularly interested in student research, helping students succeed. Generally what I heard you describe there is that research is not a product, it's more of a pathway. It's something that we sort of... that is fluid and it changes as you're doing it. What advice would you have for students who are thinking about doing research, who are sort of intimidated? Again, seeing the funding that goes into it, seeing the outlines you have to draft, seeing the process really and thinking, "Oh I don't know if I can do that."

Virginia Bulger: Yeah. I mean, first things first is don't think you can't do it because trust me, I've had my own fair share of thinking that and at the end of the day I just have to remind myself I can get this done and I can do it and that's what you really have to do. I think that it really does come down to the professor you see yourself with. Don't just pick a topic because you like that professor. Pick something, A, you're interested in, but B, also find a professor that's willing to work with you on that. The professors here are really big into research, but it's also about making sure that you get the best out of it also.

Virginia Bulger: I recently just studied abroad in the middle East and I took that as a master's course. And so I was doing a lot more research than the other students and the professor on the trip, Dr. French, he really, really pushed me to think about questions that I had never thought about before. And really, he would push me to the point that I didn't understand what I was asking until it made sense that this was what I really was interested in. And so I think that's the most important part is just finding a professor, whether it's someone you know or don't know, that is willing to push you into an area that you're uncomfortable with because that's... The whole part of research and the whole part of learning and growing is you have to get outside of your comfort zone. So I think that's my best advice with that one.

Jacob Bruggeman: Tell us about that study abroad and how that has fit within your master's curriculum.

Virginia Bulger: Yeah. So one thing that the master's has really taught us, and Dr. Bloom is kind of how to reread. And I know that sounds kind of weird as I'm 21 and I'm rereading again, like learning how to read. And I think that's really interesting in the sense of I can sit there and read a scholarly article and pretend like I know what it's talking about, but it's really about understanding what it's talking about and being able to apply that later on. And so, Dr. French, I made a annotated bibliography of over 40 sources before I left just to get a background on what I was dealing with when I got there.

Jacob Bruggeman: And where were you all going?

Virginia Bulger: We were in Oman for 12 days and then Abu Dhabi and Dubai. So that's where we were. And I was studying the succession of the Sultan in Oman and also comparing the economics, the role of Islam and the surrounding countries. And since I was going to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, more specifically looking at the UAE. So that was something that was really interesting. And I had to write daily memos, but it was about my research topic.

Virginia Bulger: And so the very first day, I think the first memo I wrote was very diary-like, and he was like, "This isn't what I want." And so he sent me a actual memo written on some research he found on Google. And I started reframing my memos and working off of that as something I could actually take, not from my personal experience, but take the information I'm learning and be able to apply it to a paper later. And I think that was like... The biggest thing too is you're constantly learning and relearning and it does get frustrating because you think you're at a point where you've learned it all. And then people were like, "No, no, you need to do it this way." And then when I got back I had to write a whole research paper on the succession and how the economy and everything was affected and I had just learned so much.

Virginia Bulger: And I also highly recommend the study abroads. You are just so immersed in the culture. You are learning so much constantly that you don't even realize you're learning. My friends now, we just make jokes that we learned and it's just like... It's kind of crazy how it comes out and it's just... It's also a very different way to collect and gather research I think. And that's-

Jacob Bruggeman: Being in the culture-

Virginia Bulger: Being in the country and absorbing it rather than reading and writing all the time. And so I think that's... It's just a very different way. And that might be something that is appealing to people who are interested in research but don't want to do it the other way. So I think that is one thing to really look out for other students.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. I liked how you mentioned the process of relearning how to read essentially, which is important because I mean, to get through the amount of sources you need to get through to become an expert in a subject, you can't just read line for line and internalize everything, especially when you're talking about like 4,000 pages of journal articles. And that is, I think, an advantage of a program like Miami's political science program, which is that it involves also teaching you strategies of how to effectively use your time when you're dealing with sources, which is something that might be intimidating for somebody who doesn't know that, like a student in their first year thinking, "Oh my gosh, I want to research X subject, I have to read like 500 books," or whatnot. And in reality there are more efficient ways you can apply yourself to the sources and extrapolate what you need from them.

Virginia Bulger: Yeah, and I think that's something I actually was able to give advice to some of the students on the trip because a lot of them were younger and so every day we'd have like maybe 10 different articles we had to read, but we had reading groups and you could split them up and I, as the grad student, had to read all of them. But some kids were like, "Oh my gosh, this is 30 pages. How do I even begin to read this?" And it's 11 o'clock at night. And I'm like, "Look, this is how you read it." And they would be like, "Wow, I never thought of it that way." I'm like, "You shouldn't. Exactly." So it's...

Jacob Bruggeman: Keywords, abstracts, conclusions.

Virginia Bulger: Yes, exactly. That's exactly right. And that's what I told them and they were like, "Wow, that makes a lot more sense." I mean, it's all about getting the bigger message, but at the same time, if you can dive in further and read, go for it. But yeah, so that was some of the best advice I could have supported them with.

Jacob Bruggeman: You've mentioned your relationship with Dr. French, with Dr. Bloom, and you've alluded to just the professors at Miami being helpful for students. How, if you're a student not familiar with research, do you approach a faculty member and say, "I'm interested in this topic. I'd like to do research." How does a student do that? Do they just identify a faculty member and go into office hours? How did you initially do that, if you could answer that?

Virginia Bulger: Yeah. Honestly, what you just said. You identify a faculty member or... Right now, I'm kind of dealing with a bit of a crisis with my thesis, trying to find someone to come onto my committee that understands my topic. And I met with a professor yesterday. I sent her some of my material and she openly said, "Look, this isn't my area of expertise but I'll send your stuff around until I find someone who's interested." And I think that's also a good starting point. If there is a professor you have a relationship with, don't be afraid to ask them who you should go to. But I think a lot of it does have to do with sending that introductory email and meeting with them and just kind of introducing yourself, going out there and say, "Look, I'm interested in this and I hear you're the person that knows it all. So like what can you help me with?"

Virginia Bulger: Every time I met with Dr. French, he threw probably like five different books at me every time. Just told me to look at them. And his office was like one giant library, but that's the kind of resources you'll get. I met with Dr. Barrio to begin research for my background research on my thesis and he had a book right right away and printed it out for me and gave it to me. And so I think it's stuff like that. They have the sources and the knowledge that you need to start somewhere and a lot of the times those sources will trigger something else in you. They'll trigger a different question, they'll find a different interest. And so I think that's also really important and a good place to start. Just be yourself and go in there and don't be afraid to ask questions. That's what they're there for.

Jacob Bruggeman: At the end of the day it's about student initiative. I'm curious how... I mean you mentioned your internship with Miami alumni... how you see student initiative, not just in research being important, but in terms of just in general, taking advantage of opportunities here.

Virginia Bulger: Oh, I think it's extremely important. I think one of the best things I've heard is a lot of people can help you get your foot in the door, but it's all about keeping the door open. And so that's something that really comes from within. It's all on you. So I think also having the name Miami carries a lot of weight. Even though I've had internships with Miami alumni, I'm still... Just because they're alumni doesn't mean they have to like me. I'm still representing the school and if they want future students to be part of their internship program... I have a lot I have to carry on my weight. So that's what I... I mean, it's all about taking the initiative and I know that's challenging for some people and that's... Again, it goes all back to getting out of your comfort zone. I'm a very loud, vocal, out there person, but sometimes it's hard for me and I also have a great support system that's like, "Do it." That's just what you have to do and if that's the results you want to see, then again, you do have to push yourself out there. So that's... Yeah, that's what I want to say.

Jacob Bruggeman: What are your next steps in terms of research? The project's developing, you don't have to defend for a few months.

Virginia Bulger: I know. It's scary. Yeah. I'm currently gathering data, figuring out this committee crisis, and then once I have the data I'll apply it to some research methods that I've learned in some of my classes and finish up my paper and go from there. But I'm also still in classes so working on that research and also just from the different topics, like for my study abroad, I'm really interested in the middle East. So continuing staying up on the news from Oman in the UAE and watching how that all plays out, especially my research. And I've always been in love with Jamaica since freshman year, so you kind of get stuck and glued to stuff and you just always follow along with it. So my interests are all over the place and it's something I'm excited to see pan out and so yeah, hopefully get a job. That's the ultimate goal.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. Well what's next? So graduation's coming up, jobs, fellowships, more school.

Virginia Bulger: Definitely a job. I need a break from school I think. Yeah, I would love a job. I'm in the middle of applying, but I also just kind of want to enjoy my summer a little bit. So I'm ... my family and I are going to safari for two weeks and I'm very excited about that. It'll be a nice break from all of this after I graduate. But yeah, no, a job would be key and I would love a career in government relations or communication and being a part of getting the right message out there, whether it's something people want to hear or not. I think it's all about the facts. And so if I can be any way part of that message, I would love to.

Jacob Bruggeman: As you're applying for jobs to start after you graduate, after you take some time off in the summer, how are you selling the research you've done? How are you selling the skillset you've put together through the master's programs or your undergraduate studies? How are you showing employers that research, particularly in political science and the liberal arts generally, to study abroad you've mentioned, is valuable for them?

Virginia Bulger: Yeah, so depending on the job is actually depending on how I put it in my cover letter. So right now I think my permanent thing and my cover letter is about my thesis and my topic because it's all about regulations and about Congress and the effects of lobbying. And as I'm applying for positions in lobbying or in the federal government it just shows that I have a diverse research on all three sectors. But it's all about how you apply it with what you're doing. And so whether it's through internships or through jobs, it's just about taking those experiences and connecting them. And so yeah, for example, hard facts, it's on my cover letter. But I think also graduating in four years with my master's is pretty impressive and employers are going to find that interesting. So that's been one thing I've been lucky to have on my resume. And so having this extra research and... Especially the writing, the writing is really important to me. You can never stop getting better at writing. So I've really appreciated that.

Jacob Bruggeman: Absolutely. Well, it sounds like there are exciting things on the horizon, and with that we appreciate having you.

Virginia Bulger: Thank you.

James Loy: Virginia Bulger earned degrees in Political Science and Business Management while attending Miami University. And she plans to pursue a career in government relations.

And next time on the podcast, it’s time for a change.

This has always been a podcast about inspiring students, who will all eventually move onto to bigger and better things, so next time we’re going to say goodbye to our host, Jacob Bruggeman, who will have a chance to talk about his personal college journey, as well as his plans for the future after graduation

And we’ll welcome our new host, Peter Everett.

CLIP From Next Episode:

Peter Everett: Hi Jacob, welcome to the podcast. How are you doing today?

Jacob Bruggeman: Doing alright Peter, thanks for having me on.

Peter Everett: Of course, I mean, it’s still your podcast, right? Technically.

Jacob Bruggeman: Well, let’s not get stuck in the technicalities here.         

Peter Everett: Okay.

Jacob Bruggeman: It’s yours now. Or will be soon enough.

James Loy: That’s next time on Major Insight.



Featured Majors: 

Political Science, Business Management

Featured Study Abroad:

Jamaica, Middle East, Oman, Abu Dhabi

Featured Internship and Organizations:

Consumer Healthcare Products Association Internship, King Library

 Major Insight

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Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase our students and how they transform academic subjects into lifelong passions. Join us wherever you listen to your podcasts and discover these students journeys.

Host Jacob Bruggeman

Jacob Bruggemam

The Major Insight podcast is hosted by Jacob Bruggeman. Bruggeman, a Miami Honors student and double-major in History and Political Science created the podcast to feature stories of students navigating 21st century academic life.

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