Alumna Spotlight: Seshu Tyagarajan, PhD

My Rutgers Ph.D. program taught me perseverance. It gave me the tools I need to solve problems in my career. Overall, it was an enlightening journey. 

--Seshu Tyagarajan

Seshu Tyagarajan received her PhD in chemical and biochemical engineering from the School of Engineering in 1999. Since then, she has gained technical, development, and manufacturing experience in biologics and cell and gene therapies (CGT). She is currently chief technical and development officer at Candel Therapeutics, a late stage biotech company that helps patients fight cancer with oncolytic viral immunotherapies. Before assuming this new role, she was executive director and global head, chemistry, manufacturing and controls (CMC) strategy for CGT at Novartis. Prior to that, she held roles of increasing responsibility at Merck, Roche, Phyton Biotech, Biogen, and Eli Lily.  

Where did you grow up?   

I’m from the South of India, but grew up in the North. I received master’s degrees in biotechnology from Savitribai Phule Pune University and in bioengineering from Purdue University. 

Why Rutgers?  

I wanted to study biochemical engineering. In and around New Jersey, Rutgers offered the best program with several options. Since my fiancé and now husband, had started working in New Jersey, I felt it was best to be together when embarking on a Ph.D. program.    

What drew you to biochemical engineering?  

I love math and I love chemistry. Biochemical engineering is a great way to combine these two fields and it came very naturally to me.   

What do you most value about your Rutgers engineering education?  

My Rutgers Ph.D. program taught me perseverance.  It gave me the tools I need use to solve problems in my career.  Specifically, I most valued the tactical learnings – how to write a proposal, evaluate data, and review results critically – and the mindset shifts – independent thinking, resolve, and humility.  Overall, it was an enlightening journey.

Did any professors make a lasting impact on you?  

CBE professor and now interim dean of the School of Graduate Studies Henrik Pedersen was my advisor and a great mentor. 

Have you faced any challenges as a woman engineer of color? 

Yes, I have faced challenges both as a woman engineer, and certainly as a woman of color. People are often threatened by intelligent women and my career has taught me that you cannot hold parts of yourself back for others. I was excited to join Candel in my new role, and in breaking the glass ceiling. It’s a fabulous team and is remarkable in that half of Candel’s senior leadership team are women.   

What prompted your move to Candel? 

Once my younger son went off to college, I was ready to consider new opportunities. I was happy at Novartis, and my career was going well, but I was ready to tackle new challenges. I considered several CTO level offers, but I felt I had a 100% match with the Candel team and knew that this was the place for me. 

I am excited to join such a vibrant and innovative company. The science and caliber of Candel, along with the character of the leadership team and the ability to have a significant impact on patients were key factors in my decision to join Candel. 

What do you most hope to accomplish  at Candel Therapeutics? 

Candel is an oncolytic viral immunotherapy company that is enabling patients’ immune systems to fight cancer. This means that viruses are genetically engineered to minimize the impact on healthy tissue while delivering an enzyme directly to the tumor site and maximizing patient immune responses. 

Candel currently has trials involving prostate, brain, lung, and pancreatic cancers. I hope to help bring this platform to center stage by getting a good handle on the CMC challenges and working with my team and company leadership to overcome them efficiently and effectively.  

Do you see yourself as a mentor? 

Yes, absolutely. As I navigated my college and career choices, I wished I had someone older than I to brainstorm with, but I didn’t. So, I want to give that back and be there for people. I’m happy to share my experience, so others can benefit from it and feel confident in the journey they are undertaking.   

What advice would you have for a current engineering student?  

Be open to opportunities and ideas. Go beyond your comfort zone and be willing to take risks. Evaluate all options and then make your decisions. In other words, keep all doors open and please don’t close any before you have to.  

What did you do for fun at Rutgers? 

I was a regular at Werblin center, taking classes in ball room dancing, Irish dancing, aerobics,  and yoga. I channeled my creative energy into taking voice lessons in South Indian classical music (Carnatic music), writing poetry and some sketching. We also had a blast with fellow RU grads during monthly hang outs at our apartment. Halfway through my PhD, we welcomed our first son, now a proud Rutgers alum.   

What do you do for fun these days?  

Gardening has been my most recent hobby.  Additionally, I love to paint, sketch, do yoga, read, travel, cook ,and sing. In general, though, I like to have fun and enjoy life. 

What are you reading now? 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. 

Where would you want to go on your next vacation?  

My next vacation is already planned!  I will be in Cabo, Mexico for a wedding, followed by a trip to Milan, Turin, and Lake Como in Italy with my girlfriends.  Beyond that I am always looking for an excuse to go to my favorite vacation spot – Hawaii.