Growing up in Pune, India, Naren Vyavahare knew education was the key to his and his family’s future. But his father drove a rented rickshaw, which generated enough income to cover day-to-day expenses but little else.
Vyavahare is now in the top echelons of bioengineers. As the Hunter Endowed Chair in Bioengineering, he oversees a grant currently worth more than $11 million. Since coming to Clemson, the bioengineer has attracted a total of more than $28 million in federal funding, including the largest single grant in Clemson’s history, an NIH-funded Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence project that’s attracted more than $20 million since 2009. That grant launched the S.C. Bioengineering Center for Regeneration and Formation of Tissues. SCBioCRAFT, a partnership with Prisma Health and the Medical University of South Carolina, has helped advance the field of cardiac and vascular tissue development through more than 300 peer-reviewed publications and papers. Vyavahare has launched three biotech companies based on the work.
In Pune, Vyavahare witnessed the healing work of hospitals and doctors. “These are people who are making differences,” he recalls thinking. “I need to work hard and go to that level somehow.”
He earned a doctorate in chemistry and then, without the internet, without even a phone or a typewriter, “wrote maybe 70, 80 letters to different professors” in America, by hand.
One professor wrote him back: the most cited engineer in history, Robert Langer of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Langer suggested Vyavahare contact Joachim Kohn, who was setting up his lab at Rutgers University. Vyavahare did, and Kohn faxed back an offer.
In Kohn’s lab, Vyavahare learned about applying biomaterials to medical problems. He went to work with Robert Levy at the University of Michigan. When Levy accepted a position at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, he brought Vyavahare along in a research faculty position.
Vyavahare knew he had to leave Levy’s lab to reach his potential. “Small trees don’t grow in the shadows of big trees,” he says. “I talked with [Levy] about it, and he was OK.”
Vyavahare had attended meetings of the Society of Biomaterials. He knew Clemson University had a hand in its formation; its first meeting was held in Clemson in 1975. So, he connected with then-chair Larry Dooley, who invited Vyavahare to give a lecture. He left with an offer to join the faculty. In 1999, his first year as a faculty member, he received his first $1 million grant from the NIH.
Helping people continues to be the overriding theme in Vyavahare’s work: “There has to be some urgency for research. Don’t wait. People are suffering and dying every day. They are hoping the treatments will be developed for improving their lives. Urgency is needed in research and translating that research to effective treatments.”