Illustrated portrait of Ruth Smarinsky
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Ruth Smarinsky has always worked on behalf of pharmacy as much as she’s worked in the pharmacy field. 

Whether it’s making inroads into adding pharmacy services to safety-net clinics or giving the field a bigger foothold in disaster relief, she has consistently worked to find new ways to put pharmacy skills – hers and others’ – into practice. 

“I always like going into programs that haven’t existed before,” says Smarinsky, the 2024 UCSF School of Pharmacy’s Alum of the Year. “UCSF gave me the confidence to do that.” 

For the past 18 years, Smarinsky has worked for Direct Relief, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based nonprofit that provides medicine and supplies to nearly 100 nations, along with a domestic program she had a major hand in establishing. She was formerly its director of pharmacy and clinical affairs and is now a senior adviser. 

“This is a place where I could establish new programs,” Smarinsky says. “I love to do things small, to see what works and doesn’t work, and expand from there.”  

Mentors have a lasting impact

Smarinsky wasn’t necessarily destined to make such a difference.

She grew up in Palmdale in the far north of Los Angeles County and went to a high school where a tiny few went on to college. Two counselors bet on whether she would even graduate. 

A need for neurosurgery during her senior year set her on a new path. Her young surgeon, Harvey Birsner, MD ’65, was a UCSF graduate.  

“He was just this remarkable man,” Smarinsky says. “One of those people who silently helped a lot of people. He pretty much said, ‘You’re going to college,’ and he became almost like a father figure for me.” 

Smarinsky went to several colleges before landing at UC Santa Cruz for her last three years and majoring in biology.  

“Harvey had really wanted me to become a physician,” she says. “It never felt right to me. But I did the MCATs and applied to medical schools.”  

When she visited UCSF, her tour guide was a pharmacy student. “I really hadn’t thought about pharmacy,” she says. After that, she applied only to UCSF for pharmacy school. 

There was a bit of pharmacy-field precedent, though. As a young adult, she had worked for a time making runs from the Antelope Valley to the UCLA library with a roll of nickels to photocopy journal articles for physicians. She would often read them. 

“The pharmaceutical aspect was always the most interesting to me,” she says. 

At UCSF, two faculty Bobs – Robert L. “Bob” Day, PharmD ’59, associate dean emeritus of the UCSF School of Pharmacy; and Robert D. “Bob” Gibson, PharmD ’58, formerly associate dean of student affairs and associate dean of professional affairs at the UCSF School of Pharmacy – played vital roles in her training.  

“Their support was always felt,” Smarinsky says. “They wanted to make sure that everyone got through and got a good education. And they were very open to what we could do with the education that we’d been given.” 

Providing relief for countless patients 

After graduation, Smarinsky completed a residency at UC Irvine and worked various pharmacy jobs, including one at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

Since her student days, she had been active in the California Pharmacists Association – she was its 1983 Student Pharmacist of the Year and 2022 Pharmacist of the Year – and through a connection there, she ended up in a formative job at the Venice Family Clinic in Los Angeles, where she got to work setting up pharmacy services.  

“I like being able to get things to patients, especially when cost is a barrier for people who are just really trying hard to survive,” Smarinsky says. 

Her experience in developing such programs would eventually lead to Direct Relief seeking her out, with an eye on developing its programs domestically. 

“After Hurricane Katrina, they realized they could ship drugs throughout the world, but they couldn’t ship prescription products to Louisiana,” Smarinsky says.  

The work she did there included creation of US and international versions of health care kits with vital medications for future disasters. “I’m really proud of developing those with a great team,” she says. “It’s been rewarding to see that grow.”  

Also for Direct Relief, she helped establish the medication-supply program Replenish Rx, in which pharmaceutical companies have agreed to supply certain drugs to low-income patients in safety-net clinics on a consistent basis. 

Day, who nominated Smarinsky for Alum of the Year, says that in supporting award nominations like hers, after years of experience, he is usually pretty good at condensing a candidate’s qualifications. 

“But,” he says, “in tackling the sheer volume, complexity, and breadth of the information supporting Ruth and her many diverse accomplishments, I was – for the first time that I can remember – overwhelmed. I am a devoted advocate of Ruth Arnold Smarinsky.”

Award recipients featured in this video about global impact:
• Richard Carmona, MD ’80, MPH, Resident Alum, Clinical Fellow Alum - Medical Alumni Association Alum of the Year
• Laura E. Keyser, DPT ’08, MPH - Alumni Practitioner Award
• Ruth Arnold Smarinsky, PharmD ’83 - Pharmacy Alumni Association Alum of the Year
Find out what else awardees shared with us.
Access the videos