Dr. Rajesh Ranganathan, who was recently named NIH director Dr. Francis Collins’s senior advisor for translational research, has made a career out of diving
into fields in need of new direction and inhabiting positions that never existed prior to his inventing them. Which is a good thing given that he has been charged with helping Collins shape and stand up the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
Ranganathan, who arrived at NIH last Nov. 1 as a contractor and became a federal employee on Jan. 28, comes to campus from pharmaceutical company
Novartis, for whom he worked for more than 7 years. He had been recruited to the drug company from academia in 2003 to “shake the system loose from within,” he said.
“They hired me to a position that had no predecessor,” he explained. “My job was to help determine what was good science and what wasn’t.”
Ranganathan quickly acquainted himself with the wide range of therapeutic areas being pursued by Novartis at 7 sites around the world and set about exposing them to academic-style review to “terminate,
start or reshape programs.” Along the way, he also founded a global office of training and education
in drug discovery for the company’s more than 5,000 scientists.
He established a postdoctoral training program at Novartis that focused on the intersection of basic science and translation of therapies to the bedside.
He also helped lay out the company’s scientific research strategy for 2010-2015.
Why leave such an influential post?
“I could easily have stayed at Novartis for 20 years and been very happy and productive,” he said. “But the NIH job spoke to my entrepreneurial inclinations…
What I always look for in a job is a broader calling. And what Dr. Collins articulated was music to my ears.”
Just as in pharma, Ranganathan begins an NIH job that has no predecessor. “It’s a new arena, with new challenges,” he said. “The potential to have broad impact in biomedical science
is, for me, the biggest attraction.
“I am a Ph.D. scientist,” he continued, “but I have always been interested in clinical
applications of my work. Looking back, my biggest regret is that I didn’t get an M.D., which would have given me a chance to help patients directly. But this [new] job offers the potential of indirectly helping those in need.”
Before working at Novartis, Ranganathan was a scientific consultant for Care Capital LLC. Earlier, he held a Helen Hay Whitney postdoctoral fellowship in Nobel laureate Dr. Linda Buck’s group at Harvard Medical School and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Ranganathan received his Ph.D. from MIT, where he worked with another Nobel laureate, Dr. H. Robert Horvitz, and discovered a novel serotonin-gated chloride channel with a role in behavior modulation. He has two degrees from Amherst College: a B.A. with honors in biology and a B.A. in chemistry.
“His research expertise and his experience within the pharmaceutical industry will be invaluable to me and to the NIH as we work toward enhancing the translation
of research into medicine,” Collins said.