Prabhas Moghe aims to move Rutgers forward through difficult times
Prabhas Moghe believes in pushing boundaries and taking strategic risks.
If something isn’t working right, he wants to know why. His drive to unravel a problem, understand it and come up with a solution is the same whether he is researching ways to help prevent and treat disease or motivating students to come to class on time with a pushup challenge.
“My first thought is always how do we make it better?” says Moghe, recently appointed as the executive vice president of academic affairs at Rutgers. “It shouldn’t have to wait until you have everything settled because that might not ever happen.”
In a role that is second in rank to Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway, Moghe has been tasked with elevating the academic profile of the university and coordinating academic programs throughout the university along with the provosts and chancellors in New Brunswick, Newark and Camden. A self-described problem-fixer, Moghe also will help create new initiatives and be at the helm of reimagining what Rutgers will become in the next decade.
His experience in the classroom shows that his approach to problem solving can take some creative turns. Before joining the academic administration, Moghe taught a biomedical engineering class with an enrollment that grew from less than 20 to over 100.
But he noticed some students taking the course – which received some of Moghe’s best student evaluations each year despite being considered a “tough” class – were coming late to class on a regular basis and sitting in the back of the lecture hall.
“I told them that they had to hold up their part of the bargain,” he says. “I said your folks are working hard, taking loans, so be punctual. We agreed on the pushups. I promised that I’d do pushups as well if I were late. Pretty soon, no one was.”
Moghe is someone who believes in taking chances and says in these uncertain times, during a global pandemic, everyone in higher education has to be nimble, make adjustments, understand new strengths and adapt.
This may be the most exciting part of his new position because he says those traits are part of his DNA. “I have always been interested in pushing the boundaries and reflecting on how things could be,” Moghe says. “As a kid I was definitely a dreamer.”
Twin Brother Inspires Prabhas Moghe's Lifelong Passion for Teaching
Taking an Early Risk
Growing up in Bombay, India, Moghe, who has an identical twin brother, says he was curious about life and loved science and math. His stay-at-home mother, trained as a microbiologist with a passion for art and music, had hopes for him to become a physician.
He shared his mother’s passion for music and learned to play the sitar, a stringed instrument used in Hindustani classical music, at the age of 8. But he also followed in the engineering footsteps of his father and pursued an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the University of Bombay.
Afterwards, he took the biggest risk of his young life, leaving the comfort of home and family and moving across the world to Minneapolis to begin a five-year graduate program at the University of Minnesota.
“You don’t know how much I enjoyed taking that risk,” he says. “I had flown thousands of miles from the warmest place on the planet, to a country I had never visited. But I always knew that I had to keep moving on and I was going to the top graduate program in the world at the time for chemical engineering.”
The risk paid off, not just professionally for Moghe, now the father of two, a 15-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son, who is a junior at Rutgers. It is where he met his wife of 28 years, Ameena, also a transplant to Minnesota, who was a graduate student as well.
He earned his doctoral degree at Minnesota, and then completed a two-year postdoc fellowship in bioengineering at Harvard Medical School before beginning his career at Rutgers 25 years ago in 1995.
Moghe has been a member of the Rutgers faculty since then and was named a Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical and Biomedical Engineering in 2013. Teaching and research, including publishing in leading scholarly journals and developing innovative technologies, has been his life. He also directed two National Science Foundation-sponsored graduate training programs in science and engineering, has served as an adjunct professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and is a member of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
The work of Moghe and his team has produced some research breakthroughs – the invention of a new family of molecules to reduce inflammation in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and new imaging probes for disease surveillance to rapidly detect small clusters of cancer cells, which can be used to find personalized treatment for cancer patients running out of options.
“What I have always wanted to do, much like many bioengineers, is understand how we can fix problems and diagnose them better, faster, quicker and more effectively in order to develop solutions for complex diseases,” Moghe says.
Before taking on his new job as the chief academic officer for Rutgers, Moghe served as provost and executive vice chancellor for research and academic affairs for Rutgers–New Brunswick. As executive vice president, Moghe will oversee research at Rutgers, manage the faculty tenure and promotion process across the university and oversee the global programs, as well as online and continuing education programs, helping Rutgers to be better positioned in these areas as it emerges from the pandemic.
In the time of COVID-19, while higher education institutions across the country are financially stressed, Moghe says Rutgers’ “vitals” are fundamentally strong.
“I think the pandemic has given us clarity as to what are the most important and critical things we need to pursue,” he says. “A crisis like this let’s you prioritize and leapfrog ahead.”
For Moghe, who is leading programs to broaden the participation of minority students in STEM disciplines, this means bold thinking about what Rutgers faculty and students will pursue. “It could be racial justice, systemic problems, marginalized societies, planetary well-being – something that is innovative and curiosity driven,” he says.
Moghe doesn’t believe in getting boxed in by artificial boundaries. And he wants the same for students at Rutgers. He ascribes to the approach of design thinking – often referred to as out-of-the-box thinking – which challenges assumptions and aims to redefine problems to find alternative strategies and solutions.
“We need to carve out some space and allow students to be change agents. They might become tomorrow’s Bill Gates,” he says.
The teacher at heart who took responsibility for preparing daily lesson plans and helping his twin brother with his studies after a bad fall from a high slide when they were both in second grade is looking forward to the end of the pandemic when he can gather a collaborative forum across the university to build on research already taking place at Rutgers and develop new academic programs. But he is not waiting until then.
“It is important to make strides because there is a sense of urgency and seriousness, so we must step up,” Moghe says. “We just can’t fold up our hands and say we will be back in two years.”