Drug development leader’s motivation: the mission
Posted by Elena Pantjushenko
Ponni Subbiah, MD, MPH, joined PATH recently as leader of our Drug Development program, which grew out of our affiliation with OneWorld Health. Ponni comes to us after 15 years at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., where most recently she was vice president of the global access group within the Emerging Markets Business Unit. We caught up with Ponni in her office in South San Francisco, where we talked about her family, her career in medicine, her first impressions of the new job, and her vision for PATH’s newest global program.
Q. Who has inspired you most?
A. My mother. She grew up in India in a very traditional house, and came to America by herself as a Fulbright scholar. She decided to stay in the US because she thought my two sisters and I would have more opportunities here. It took a lot of courage. She persevered, became a teacher, and now she is retired.
Q. What interested you in going into medicine?
A. Some of my aunts and uncles were doctors in India, so I was intrigued by their work when I was quite young. Also, growing up in Minnesota, I remember our neighborhood kids would all go to Sunday school. My family is Hindu, but my sisters and I wanted to join the neighborhood kids at church because they seemed to be having a lot of fun. Through church, I got exposed to missionary work. Some of the missionaries were in the medical field, and they would come in and talk about their experiences in the field. So I decided when I was in third grade that I wanted to be a doctor.
Q. You dedicated a large part of your professional career to studying and working overseas—India, Uganda, Latin America. Was global health work always part of the plan?
A. I went to medical school in India. Being there allowed me to have the necessary training and hands-on experience, as well as true exposure to the Indian culture since I grew up in Minnesota. After I finished med school in India, I came back to the US and received medical training in America as well. I did an internship in Washington, DC, where I was exposed to great cultural diversity. Working with patients and colleagues of so many different cultural backgrounds—it was an amazing experience for me. After that, I entered the internal medicine program at Mayo Clinic and then transferred to the neurology program a year later. I decided to do a research and clinical fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, where I spent time at the neurology HIV clinic, and also did research on HIV dementia. That’s when I got interested in research, and also more strongly in global health.
Q. You spent 15 years working at Pfizer. How did you get started at Pfizer and what were you doing there?
A. I joined Pfizer as a medical director and was a clinical lead for two major Alzheimer’s disease studies that were being conducted in multiple countries. I loved the work. It really exposed me to global health, working with Alzheimer’s leaders around the world, seeing and learning all the cultural differences and social stigmas that Alzheimer’s disease carried. It enhanced my research skills, and I also began to see the power of what we were doing to help patients affected by this devastating disease.
Q. You were a Pfizer global health fellow in Uganda. What was that experience like?
A. I was connected to a group called Health Volunteers Overseas, a nonprofit dedicated to education and training of local health care providers in areas of unmet medical need. I worked in Kampala at Mulago Hospital.
During that time, I got introduced to another group called Reach Out. Every Friday, we would go to this little church a couple of hours drive from the main hospital, and each of us would get a corner, and we would put up a curtain, interview patients, and provide basic medical care. Any HIV patients from the community could come to the clinic, and we would try to treat any outpatient symptoms, referring them to the hospital if needed.
For me this was an amazing experience. Every morning we would start with yoga exercises, then go to our corners and do our work. At some point in the afternoon, it was tea time. Everybody would stop, and the ladies—some of them were HIV patients themselves—would make tea, and everyone would sit in the yard. I was a part of this family, not a doctor and a patient. It was a very interesting, very holistic approach to medical care.
Q. What did you see in Mulago that changed you as a doctor?
A.In the hospital, a man in his early twenties had been admitted with tuberculosis: it had affected his spine and was pressing on his spinal cord. He couldn’t walk. He came into the hospital, but he could not be helped. He had been sitting in that hospital for a month. If that were to happen here, in this country, it would be an emergency and would have been treated right away. But because of the lack of resources, this young man ended up being paralyzed. It was a frustrating experience for me as a doctor to watch that.
Q. While at Pfizer, you most recently were vice president of global access within the Emerging Markets Business Unit. What did you like most about that work?
A. It was one of the most challenging jobs I had at Pfizer, and I learned a lot. I learned about working across different sectors, and finding strengths in the unique partners we worked with. With each, we learned something different. The first partnership we had was with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. When I met with Professor [Muhammad] Yunus, he was encouraging us to think differently in addressing unmet needs. We also worked with the Clinton Foundation on a drug, rifabutin, used for patients with tuberculosis. Our team worked with them to develop a model for lowering the cost of the drug by 60 percent.
Q. Do you feel that the way pharma approaches philanthropy has changed over the last decade?
A. It definitely has. I think that having organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation and others have helped build this new environment where you have players from various sectors coming together to change the world. I think these organizations deserve a lot of credit for their ability to see the value of different sectors. I feel that from all perspectives—public, private, and nonprofit—people are more receptive to working in partnerships for a common goal.
Q. What do you envision for our drug development program?
A. I envision us fulfilling our purpose by growing our drug research capabilities, searching out innovative approaches to unmet needs, and demonstrating real impact. I want our group to continue to be known as having impact and skill sets that are credible. I also want this to be a fun place to work, because that is where people feel fulfilled. I want to grow this incredible team that is excellent at listening, partnering, and problem-solving. I want us to get to know each other and work effectively together, and continue moving forward within the PATH family.
Q. What motivates you?
A. It’s the mission of our work. I keep images in my mind of the patients I saw in Uganda—the people I’ve met and the need I saw. I remember those times in Kampala, when I felt so hopeless and unable to assist those in dire need. And now, I feel like I have been given an opportunity to do something about it. I feel empowered and accountable.