Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Pankaj Desai, Director of Drug Development

From an early age, Dr. Pankaj Desai knew he was destined for a life in academia. As a child of professors, he witnessed their lifelong dedication to academics. He was raised in India and enjoyed a modest upbringing with happy parents who led a great life. For Pankaj they were excellent role models to follow. “Academics runs in my blood,” he says. “I always wanted to pursue it and knew my heart was in research.”

Dr. Pankaj Desai - Director of Drug Development
Dr. Pankaj Desai is a UC Online Professor and the Director of three drug development programs through the renowned James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy.

A Mentor Challenges Him to Think Deeper

Pankaj obtained his bachelor’s in pharmacy and master’s in pharmaceutical sciences from top-ranking universities in India. When looking for advanced opportunities in research, Pankaj was drawn to the US. It was the hub for innovation, and he was attracted to a graduate program in South Carolina.

While Pankaj completed his Ph.D., he met an advisor who motivated him to think deeper about the topics he was most interested in. As a result, Pankaj began research in oncology and drug development. “My advisor changed my life in terms of thinking about the complexities of cancer, the heterogeneity of cancer, the tumor mass, and what would be required to try to cure this dreadful disease,” he says.

After years of research and teaching at a Louisiana university, Pankaj headed to the University of Cincinnati (UC), which he’s called home for more than 27 years. In 2003, with a generous donation by Dr. Candace Kendle, an alum of the college who was the founding CEO of global clinical research organization Kendle Inc, Pankaj began to work with several colleagues from UC and regional industries, in the planning stages of a Master of Pharmaceutical Science in Drug Development (MSDD) program. It first launched on campus in 2004, moved to a hybrid curriculum by 2015, and went entirely online in 2020.

“When we launched the program, it was the first of its kind,” Pankaj says. “Our vision was to appeal to professionals working in clinical trials or research organizations, those working in the pharma industry or academic health centers.”

Program Led by Industry Drug Development Experts

Pankaj set out to hire the right mix of adjunct faculty. He collaborated with scientists from companies like P&G, Medpace, CTI, Patheon (now Fischer Scientific), and Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary. The rest, he says, is history. “We’ve been fortunate to hire from our College of Pharmacy faculty, College of Medicine, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and regional industry. Our adjunct faculty are experts in their niche areas,” Pankaj says. (At least 80% of the original teaching team is still with the program today — a remarkable statistic, considering how educator turnover is higher nationally.)

As UC Online’s MSDD program evolved, enhancements shaped the curriculum and the student population. Today, the faculty welcomes students from even more diverse backgrounds than when the program started. For example, some students first considered getting an MBA before learning the MSDD program is tailored and industry-specific. And the program now draws applicants from outside of Ohio, including New Jersey and its thriving pharmaceutical sector and California’s flourishing biotech field. Students in India, China, and Singapore have chosen this well-known online program, too.

Pankaj cites the diverse types of students who enroll being biology graduates, healthcare experts, dieticians, educators, people with advanced degrees in medicine, postdoctoral fellows, and a few students who arrive with MBAs or Doctor of Jurisprudence law degrees. Age-wise, the student body includes younger people just beginning work in the field to people with 30 years of experience. And we have many female students and underrepresented minority students taking part in the online MSDD program.

Want to know more about the drug development program faculty?
Watch this short video featuring Dr. Desai.

Essential Curriculum for Drug Development Grad Program

The 100% online curriculum provides cross-disciplinary training in drug development’s scientific, regulatory, and business aspects, with courses that include the following:

  • Global Regulatory and Development Strategies of Drugs and Medical Devices, where students study the legal and regulatory aspects relevant to drug and medical device development.
  • Discovery of Drugs and Therapeutic Biologicals, one the program’s most popular courses, with its introduction to the discovery and early development (i.e., before pre-clinical) of small molecule therapeutics and biopharmaceuticals such as proteins, peptides, vaccines, cell and gene therapies, and nucleotide-based products
  • Pharmaceutical Economics and Management, which provides students with a background in project management issues in the conduct of global clinical trials, financial aspects of drug development, and pharmacoeconomics of approved drug/drug products.

While other universities’ advanced pharmaceutical studies focus heavily on regulatory affairs or clinical trials, UC Online’s MSDD degree takes a holistic approach to the master’s program. Pankaj says:

We have an edge. Our curriculum mimics how drugs are discovered and developed through a multidisciplinary team approach. So often, we don’t connect the dots and know what it takes to make a new drug. It takes a village that includes medicinal chemists who synthesize the molecules and pharmacological test compounds, experts in pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, clinical trial authors, biostatisticians, testing specialists, and regulatory affairs professionals who know the inside out of filing specifications with the FDA.

Because we don’t always get a bird’s eye view of the full process as a drug marches from development to completion, our curriculum’s holistic focus helps students better understand the drug development team matrix environment.

In addition to the MSDD, Dr. Desai is responsible for the Clinical Trials Design and Research and Global Regulatory Affairs in Drug Development graduate certificate programs.

Industry Involvement Brings Immense Satisfaction

We asked Pankaj where he draws inspiration and what motivates him to stay so committed to this field and our drug development programs. He says, “The paradigm for drug development is not stagnated and is evolving and ever-changing. There is always something that needs conquering, and innovations happen every day. To keep up with that and to be a part of that, no matter how small, is quite fulfilling.”

We closed our interview with Pankaj by asking what his parents, who influenced him so greatly, think about him following in their footsteps. “They loved it. My parents came to the US and stayed with us for many summers. They met some of my students and liked to ask when they will publish their research papers,” he says. (Pankaj would gently remind his father to go easy on the students.)

High-Quality Graduate-Level Education, Fully Online

We hope you enjoyed meeting Pankaj and learning of his passion for the drug development niche in the pharmaceutical industry. His enthusiasm for the three programs he oversees, the MSDD and Clinical Trials Design and Research and Global Regulatory Affairs in Drug Development graduate certificates, is undeniably infectious.

To recap what’s unique about UC Online’s graduate-level drug development programs, they are:

  • Fully online and asynchronous, so you can study whenever it works best for you
  • Taught by academic and industry experts who are enthusiastic and experienced in this evolving field
  • Affiliated with UC’s renowned James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy
  • Designed for a full- or part-time study pace for students living anywhere in the world
  • Helping program graduates advance their careers, with many rising to senior executive leadership positions

If you’re ready to take the next step and want to learn more about the program, please complete this online form, and a UC Online Enrollment Services Advisor will be in touch.

On behalf of Pankaj, his fellow instructors, and support staff, we thank you for your interest in our innovative drug development programs and look forward to meeting you!

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