Dr. Pankaj Desai: 2021 Excellence in Mentoring of Doctoral Students Award

Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.

A headshot portrait of Dr. Desai.

Pankaj Desai, PhD is a professor of pharmacokinetics and the director of the Drug Development graduate program, which he launched in 2004. Dr. Desai⁠—or as his students and research assistants refer to him “Doc” ⁠—is also the recipient of this year’s Excellence in Mentoring of Doctoral Students award. He has mentored over thirty graduate and doctoral students in his time at UC, and many of his former mentees are leaders in the pharmaceutical industry, including his very first PhD student, Dr. Bharat Damle, who is the clinical pharmacology head at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals

Dr. Desai’s research focus is on anti-cancer drugs for the treatment of malignant brain tumors⁠⁠—glioblastoma. With the help of his mentees, Dr. Desai has been making great strides in the investigation, and they have found a compound that they think is very promising. “[Glioblastoma is] a very complicated disease. We are not rosy-eyed that this is going to be a one-shot cure,” he says, “but I think this compound can become a very important tool in fighting brain tumors.”

Dr. Desai and his students are repurposing an existing, already FDA approved compound that is currently used to treat breast cancer. Being able to skip the extra step of approving a new drug with the FDA saves precious time, and Dr. Desai says that “unlike new drugs which can take up to twenty years to get into the market and start benefiting the patients, our hope is that this compound can be translated into clinical success within in a much shorter time frame.” If advanced clinical trials are successful, this compound could be added to the treatment arsenal for brain cancer within five to seven years. 

A lifelong lifelong learner himself, Dr. Desai's academic journey began with the groundwork his parents, both professors themselves, laid before him. "They absolutely thrived off interacting with students," he says, "so I grew up in that environment." Dr. Desai's own students are always teaching him a thing or two, and he says, “Oftentimes I’m floored by my graduate students’ abilities to come up with new ideas.” His students are “responsible for a lion’s share of the success” in the lab, and he is often published on research papers where his students are the lead authors. 

The successful findings that come from Dr. Desai’s lab are partly due to the community culture he has created there. “You want to make sure there’s a good synergy between your students’ interests and your ongoing research,” he says. In the lab, it is important to make sure everyone is motivated by the same thing: benefiting patients.

Dr. Desai is clear that the patients are the reason he puts in the work, a sentiment that he imparts in his mentees. He encourages his students to empathize with patients and learn what they are going through directly from them. “We keep that as the central focus,” he says. While he has mentored a great many individuals that continue to make significant pharmacological findings, the real legacy he wants to leave is that of the patients who benefit from his work. “I hope that at the end of the day we can make a real difference in the lives of the patients,” Dr. Desai says. “That⁠—above any awards or publications⁠—is what matters.”