Faculty View: Prabhas V. Moghe

Inter-school program is elevating research between Rutgers Engineering and Biomedical and Health Sciences, strengthening ties, creating cross-disciplinary teams, and seeding new ideas.

Prabhas V. Moghe, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor, Biomedical Engineering and Chemical and Biochemical Engineering
Research Director, School of Engineering–Biomedical and Health Sciences Alliances & Partnerships
Q: Tell us about your new role as research director.
A: Over the past decade, I gained the experience of assembling large teams of collaborating faculty – this was primarily to establish new training programs for research on problems and technologies related to biological interfaces, which was followed by another new concept of training PhD candidates on disciplines related to stem cell biotechnologies. I spearheaded these programs through funding from the National Science Foundation, and through this initiative we seeded new ideas and created multidisciplinary teams around them, increasing our PhD pipeline and elevating research at the School of Engineering. Dean Farris recognized my passion for making connections.  Now my role has expanded.  One of my objectives is to coordinate with the Office of Research and Economic Development and with the chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences to further develop inter-school program areas of research excellence while strengthening research ties between the cross-disciplinary faculty in the School of Engineering and those in RBHS.
Q: So how do you do that?
A: I am reaching out to faculty in other departments to make new partnerships. I am also providing guidance about how Rutgers can submit new research proposals and interact with private industry. My goal is to make sure that engineering has a seat at the table when new initiatives are being discussed, to be a kind of scout, and to help make sure we are all aligned. It’s a bit different from a corporation, where the CEO and the management set the direction for the entire organization and everyone is expected to follow very closely. At a major research university like Rutgers, faculty members each have their own expertise and freedom to operate as scholars. So you need someone who can bring them together or catalyze this process.
Q: What do you like about this role?
A: I like the ideation process – brainstorming, making new connections, taking advantage of the different disciplines and strengths, connecting the dots between very bright minds who may be working in silos. That’s how we can create new enterprises or new processes that will have an impact. There is tremendous brain power throughout Rutgers, and people are doing fascinating work. But sometimes you need to direct that work toward something more strategic, and this is why collaborations are so important. This collaborative effort between engineering and biomedical and health sciences brings engineering out front in the development of new technologies to get more research funding, bringing the engineering mindset to solve problems and to bring new inventions from the bench to the bedside. And in that way, improve the health and wellbeing of people around the world.
Q: How do you define collaboration?
A: To my mind, collaboration happens when you have people from different disciplines and different mindsets coming together to solve a problem of significance. Typically, two faculty from similar or slightly dissimilar disciplines are normally able to steer things a little bit forward. But when you have two significantly different perspectives or domain experts coming together, and if one can catalyze co-mingling of ideas, you can create something truly novel, with a more transformative impact.
Q: What do you mean by transformative?
A: When the two domains feed off each other, then you are able to take it to the next level. That’s what really gets me excited. You are not just taking something you have developed and asking someone in another lab to test it. When you intermingle two different disciplines, then you can create a new hypothesis, a new vision, and that is what we have been able to do across multiple labs, and this has accelerated with the recruitment of newer faculty in Engineering with relevance to biomedical applications as well as the research organization of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.
Q: What do you need for this kind of collaboration to succeed?
A: There are three really important ingredients. One is the ideation process. You need to have people come together and brainstorm. Then you need people in the lab, such as research faculty or graduate students, who are trained to work in several disciplines, who can bring the idea to reality. And you need the proper resources, which means grantsmanship, infrastructure and especially funding.
Q: How is Rutgers performing in this area?
A: I think we are in an excellent position to produce significant collaborations. We have the critical mass of people, especially in the health sciences and across the six major fields of engineering. We have great leadership, a history of excellence in research, and we are located in a region that has a large number of biotech and pharmaceutical companies. As exemplified by our recent PhD training awards, which was over $7 million funding from the National Science Foundation, over the last 13 years we have trained 70 doctoral students. This has energized the landscape in Engineering, and we have changed the mindset of people and made collaborations more seamless. We have also removed some of the barriers that, in the past, have made it hard to get some things done. We are starting to see more teams of faculty from different Engineering programs along with RBHS working on joint proposals and publications. The level of funding from the NIH to build our research capacity and train engineers for both academic and non-academic careers is also on the rise.  New innovations-centered projects have also taken root.
Q: How do you measure success?
A: It is still a little early in the process, as I began this role about eight months ago. But already I believe our faculty in engineering are more visible and are being noticed more within the “biomedical sciences sandbox”. Several younger faculty investigators are now front and center at key meetings and professional symposia. In particular, I look forward to working with organizations such as the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the new Rutgers Brain Health Institute to engage more proactively with engineers who have new diagnostic or therapeutic innovations. In the future, my impact will be measured in how many new scientific discoveries from engineering are translated into collaborative enterprises that go all the way from discovery in the lab and eventually create some new treatment or device. We will need to compete and get new grants, publish papers, train new students, graduate doctoral students and generate new intellectual property. These will be the yardstick for success over the long term.