Distinguished Professor and Department Chair of Pharmaceutical Sciences
Co-Director, Nanomedicine Education and Research Consortium (NERC)
Where did you grow up?
I was born on Zanzibar, a small island on the east coast of Africa. I lived there until my family moved in 1976. Because my father was an employee of East African Airways, we moved to a small town in mainland Tanzania, called Moshi. This town is 23 miles from Mt. Kilimanjaro and about 100 miles from Serengeti National Park and other game reserves in Africa. Tanzania definitely has some unique features: Kilimanjaro is snow-capped even though it is beneath the equator, wildebeest migrate across the land in search of water and grass, and the whole ecosystem consists of people and animals living in close proximity to each other. The Maasai are a cattle-herding, nomadic people that live in some of the game reserves. There is a tremendous amount of respect for animals in this country because the people cohabitate the land with them. I lived in Moshi until I came to the U.S. in 1983 to study pharmacy at Northeastern.
What is your educational background?
I graduated from the Northeastern University College of Pharmacy with a Bachelors degree in 1988. During that time, I did research with Professor Boroujerdi, and he encouraged me to go to graduate school. I went to Purdue University in Indiana for my Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences and graduated from there in 1992.
When and why did you choose to teach to Northeastern?
In 1993, I was able to find a position as an Assistant Professor and was involved in teaching, research, and different levels of service activities. The idea of coming back to Northeastern was very appealing to me because I could help undergraduate and Ph.D. students come into academia. I’m very proud of the fact that I graduated from here, and I’m also proud to contribute to the mission of the University through teaching and scholarship.
I received tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor in 1999. I had the privilege of doing a short sabbatical leave in 2000 to do research at another lab. I went to MIT and worked under Professor Robert Langer who is a world-renowned authority on biomaterials and drug delivery. I continued my research and received funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH). Five to eight researchers started in the lab with me. Now I have twenty-two total students and post-doctorates. In 2006, I was promoted to full professor. I am Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences as of 2010, after being the Associate Chair and Acting Chair when Professor Torchilin decided to step-down from this role.
What did you do before you decided to pursue academic research at Northeastern?
I got my first job as a Senior Scientist research position in a small start-up company in Madison, WI, called Columbia Research Laboratories. The company did drug research and formulation. I only worked there for a short time.
What is your field of study at the School of Pharmacy?
Pharmaceutical Sciences, specifically Drug Delivery and Nanomedicine. Nanocmedicine is the application of nanotechnology for medical diagnosis, imagining, and therapy.
What do you enjoy about being at Northeastern?
The interaction with students at all levels. One of my passions is being able to work with students and researchers in the lab. I’ve been very fortunate to have some of the most brilliants students and postdocs working in my lab. Being able to spend one-on-one time with hardworking students while we try to solve complicated medical problems is my favorite part. I value my teaching opportunity incredibly.
What is the most interesting aspect of the research that you are compiling right now?
Within the field of nanotechnology, my fellow researchers and I are interested in creating better technology to diagnose certain diseases, like cancer, earlier and we are also interested in targeted drug delivery systems to enhance efficacy of various therapeutic agents. For these areas, we are developing technology that can be clinically translated to help patients with these diseases. The technology would primarily function in the cases of cancer, some inflammatory diseases, and, to a smaller extent, brain diseases.
What was the nature of your last publication?
In our last publication, which came out this year, asked the question: what are some of the reasons cancer resists chemotherapy? One of the findings we continue to explore is the role of glucose uptake and metabolism in cancer cells. The hypothesis is that cancer cells become resistant because they adapt to the harsh environment they are in. Because they have adapted, they become aggressive. Our theory is that if we shut down glucose metabolism in resistant cells, you can make them succumb to low doses of chemotherapy because the acidity produced by glucose metabolism in cancer cells is a contributor to the harsh environment by producing lactic acid. We use nanoparticles to deliver two or more drugs simultaneously. One inhibits glucose metabolism, and the other treats the cell. We looked at two drugs that did both jobs simultaneously and the theory worked. The article was published in a journal called PLoS One, a high-impact, public access journal.
What is your next academic pursuit?
I took on the responsibility of Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and I enjoy being involved in the administrative and leadership aspects of the department. I would like to explore that further, but I would also like to remain dedicated to my students and research in the lab. I don’t want to lose teaching or researching. I want input in leadership, but at the same time, maintain a reasonably sized lab in order to maintain productivity and contribute in these two areas.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Maybe as an associate dean of research or at the graduate level, or as a director of a research center. I think about entrepreneurship as well and how we can create and market resources for Northeastern and the School of Pharmacy specifically. I’m excited by new ventures that come out of our research and the possibility of starting companies that can commercialize these ideas into products.
How frequently do you get to speak or meet with other Northeastern alumni or students living in the area?
As Chair, I get more frequent opportunities. Every 3-6 months there is usually a function where I get to speak to School of Pharmacy and other Northeastern alumni. Recently, I participated in the NU @ Noon program with the University Alumni Office. It is a seminar series by faculty who are doing research, specifically use-inspired research, and I was able to speak to a group of fifteen alumni. In April, I will be presenting on our work in the use of nanotechnology in medicine at the School of Pharmacy’s 1st Annual Alumni Anniversary Continuing Pharmacy Education program.
What would you say to a student who is considering attending the School of Pharmacy?
Certainly I’ve been involved in open houses. I’ve participated in phone-a-thons with Early Action students. I called potential students and their parents to say how exciting it is to come to Northeastern and experience the Northeastern distinctiveness—co-op, comprehensive research university, ground-breaking research that is going on, living in the Boston area, being part of this incredible mecca of biomedical research and education, being so close to all of the major teaching hospitals in the world, and the leadership and championship in our sports!
Coming back to Boston from Wisconsin was the right thing to do for me. Pharmacy education is constantly changing. What was practiced when I went to school is very different from today, and it will change again over the next ten to fifteen years. A successful and sustaining pharmacy school needs to be adaptable and to have strong fundamentals. Northeastern makes you into a professional for tomorrow, a year from tomorrow, and over a span of a 40-50 year career. Being able to engage in practice is important. To me, co-op is not only being able to see what the practice is like, but to see how one practice fits in and another doesn’t, in terms such as research, clinical, and retail. My experience in research brought me to graduate school. Co-op allows you to choose what field is right for you. I don’t think any other school of pharmacy is able to claim that. Students exploring and learning about new discoveries is absolutely wonderful.
What is the most unforgettable thing a student has ever said to you?
Over my nineteen years here, I’ve had close to 45 students do research in my lab. The most meaningful response I’ve received from students who had worked in my lab is that even though they may not be currently practicing as researchers, the time that they spent learning the value of research education has helped them in retail and clinical settings as well. They are better equipped for problem-solving from that period of research training. This is comforting because I received an opportunity to be in a research lab as a student, so I want to give others that same opportunity. I want them to come back and learn and care about research. I want them to think about different problems and find solutions. That experience, even if for a short time, has a tremendous impact, and they value it very much.
Who has influenced your career most?
Many of my teachers from my pharmacy education were my professional mentors. Kinam Park who was my advisor at Purdue, Robert Langer from MIT, and Vladimir Torchilin in the department have been instrumental in shaping who I am today. There are also my parents, wife, and kids. They are the joy after all the craziness of my work. That’s really the most wonderful part. I’ve been blessed professionally and personally.
What is your fondest memory from your time here?
So many. I served at the Rho Chi Pharmacy Honor Society Advisor for almost six years after I came to Northeastern. The appreciation of being an advisor and having different interactions with students is extremely memorable. I still have all the wonderful tokens of appreciation that students have given me over the years.
What is your favorite hang-out spot or place to grab food on campus?
If I’m not hanging out in my office or lab, I like Rebecca’s Café. And the Starbucks, of course. It’s wonderful to have that on campus.
What has changed the most at Northeastern since you have been here?
There have been a lot of physical changes, such as new dorms, high-rises, the computer science building, West Village, International Village, and Behrakis, which is a wonderful place to both teach and meet with students. The greenery around campus has changed, too, with all the different landscapes and artist sculptures. It has changed dramatically over the last 10-15 years. The Northeastern grounds used to be all asphalt, and now it’s a beautiful place to be.
And the intellectual growth of the campus has changed dramatically as well. The size of the student enrollment at the university has decreased, and the quality has increased. That has lead to a lot of development of the research emphasis on campus and the ability to have increasingly stimulating and intellectual discussions.
A Few Words of Advice:
You must aspire to be the best, but keep your feet on the ground. Caring for human beings, thinking about the human plight, and empathizing with others is why we have chosen to be healthcare professionals. It is the cornerstone of who we are to improve human health. To do what we do in terms of research and teaching is really a privilege.