Bernard Arulanandam Named Vice Provost of Research for Tufts University

Arulanandam, currently vice president for research, economic development, and knowledge enterprise at the University of Texas at San Antonio, starts July 1

Bernard Arulanandam, vice president for research, economic development, and knowledge enterprise at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), has been named the new vice provost for research (VPR) at Tufts. He will start in the position on July 1. He will take over the role from Bill Shaw, who has been serving as vice provost for research ad interim since January 1.

Arulanandam is a highly regarded immunologist focused on expanding our understanding of host-microbial interactions involved in immune response to infectious diseases. In the course of his work at UTSA, he has developed faculty cluster hiring programs, aligned research and workforce development across interest groups, and established research institutes to enhance the visibility and prominence of the institution.

During his career, he has focused on building strategic partnerships, cultivating scholarly professional development, and advancing opportunities for student success.

He is an inducted fellow of the National Academy of Inventors—joining five other Tufts members of the select group—and also a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.

At Tufts, Arulanandam will work to develop and implement strategic research priorities and advocate for the research and scholarship mission across the university, including efforts to garner external research funding. Another focus will be to accelerate interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary initiatives. In his role as VPR, he will serve on the president’s senior team.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Research supports and seeks to grow Tufts’ research enterprise, while also maintaining compliance with federal, state, and local laws and regulations. It supports investigators in developing proposals and funding strategies for their research and scholarship, and protecting, managing, and licensing of university intellectual property, among many other responsibilities.

Tufts Now spoke with Arulanandam about his background and what he hopes to accomplish at Tufts.

Tufts Now: What’s involved in the job of vice provost of research at Tufts? 

Bernard Arulanandam: Curiosity-based discovery has led to so many important research innovations: CRISPR gene-editing, green fluorescent proteins, biosensor technology, cancer immunotherapy—all of those things derive from fundamental research.

That puts supporting basic research at the heart of any VPR’s job. As Tufts’ new vice provost for research, I will strongly encourage fundamental research—including by students, for whom it can be transformative.

And when it comes to applied research, if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of deploying disruptive technologies at speed and scale to improve the lives of vast numbers of individuals.

That’s why I’m interested in seeing how Tufts can create more value-added partnerships and fuel more public-private funding for accomplishing shared research objectives. What demonstration projects can we create and deploy and show as feasible—and then, if they’re successful, scale them with purpose?

If I have a vision that sits in my drawer, it’s of no value to anybody. But if I can develop and license it, and then partner, scale, and deploy it, that’s where the benefit lies for Tufts.

Research at universities has led to many breakthroughs that improved health and enhanced quality of life, from CRISPR to antibiotics like streptomycin to the lithium-ion battery and the elimination of cattle plague, which was accomplished at Tufts. Which research breakthroughs are standouts for you?

Being a chief research officer is like being a kid in a candy store: I am excited about everybody’s research.

But one breakthrough that particularly speaks to me as an example of transdisciplinary research is the huge number of people whose collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN resulted in the detection of the neutrino—this ghost particle without mass that emerged from the primordial soup of the Big Bang and has furthered our understanding of the universe.

And then, closer to home, at the University of Texas at Austin, I am inspired by the group of investigators who—prior to SARS—were working closely with the National Institutes of Health on coronaviruses. Their research resulted in the methodology of locking the coronavirus spike protein in place, which in turn formed the basis of the current slate of COVID vaccines.

What appeals to you most about Tufts?

I often tell students that the simple problems are already solved. What’s left for us to solve together are the complex ones. These require both a diversity of perspectives—and looking at the spaces where disciplines intersect as the spaces where solutions may lie.

I bring the mindset of interdisciplinary thinking to everything I do. It informs my work as an immunologist and my view of the potential of science to solve huge challenges. I deeply understand the power of working across schools and programs to foster major innovation, to drive important research and scholarship, and to offer the maximum positive impact for society on issues ranging from climate and sustainability to healthy aging—really, any major challenge you can name.

I know that thinking and working across disciplinary boundaries is in Tufts’ DNA, too, so this feels like a good match for me.

In addition to the research and scholarly output of its exceptional faculty, Tufts has a singular focus on student-centric learning. That the university helps its students to become the knowledge workers of the 21st century spoke to me as well.

What are some strategies you or others have deployed at the University of Texas for supporting the research and scholarship of the next generation of humanists and social scientists?

This is a priority that’s very dear to me personally. I deeply value the humanities and social sciences. I’m an immunologist by training—and both of my daughters are going into the liberal arts.

At UTSA, we have established programs dedicated to promoting scholarly work across all disciplines. While the methods of measurement might differ—in the fine arts and humanities, for example, it’s not about journal citations—the opportunities to demonstrate value and impact are numerous, from hosting an international linguistics conference, to performing a musical composition, to conducting archeological field studies, and everything in between.

We established at UTSA an academy of distinguished researchers and scholars. When I see the breadth of the faculty whom we have inducted from across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, I continue to be inspired by the potential of bringing together great minds from every field.

I like to provide ways to incentivize all disciplines to thrive—and also to provide the opportunities, where it makes sense to do so, to bridge to other disciplines.

How can we support young scholars and researchers in both academic endeavors as well as, if they so choose, non-academic ones?

I’m a big proponent of fostering students’ exposure to the full array of opportunities, including those outside academia. Take the cadre of doctoral students in my own program: Some have continued in academia, but just as many have gone to the corporate sector or to roles in government, following their passions.

I believe strongly in students’ cultivation of their networks, as early as possible in their time as students. Sometimes they may be shy and reluctant to ask questions, but I encourage them to meet as many people as they can.

Even today, as an established immunologist, I still rely on the network I developed as a graduate student. I think it’s critical for all of us as mentors to open our Rolodexes to find the resources our students need—and to encourage them to pursue as many different opportunities as we can find for them.

For many young scientists and scholars, Tufts has been where they first discovered their passion for the research enterprise. When did you first understand that the life sciences were your calling?

I owe to both my parents, and especially my dad, my curiosity about science and the natural world. As a kid, I spent many pre-Internet hours in the library scouring through books that showcased inspiring scientists, engineers, and naturalists.

In high school, teachers piqued my curiosity in the life sciences, which was then amplified in college by professors who got me to think specifically about host-pathogen interaction, which has become my specialty as an immunologist.

I became fascinated with questions like: How do microbes evade these beautiful immune systems of ours? What would it look like to develop small molecules that could activate certain pathways that would, in turn, eradicate bacteria? And how do you modulate our ability to fight infection through the development of vaccines? That ultimately became the focus of my lab.

These are the kinds of questions that inspired my lifelong curiosity about the immune system and life sciences.

Although attitudes toward science are generally positive, the degree of confidence in science varies across the country. What’s your recommendation for addressing skepticism toward well-established scientific research?

I approach the challenge through storytelling. When we focus exclusively on the facts, for lay audiences, the impact of the innovation can sometimes get lost in translation. As a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I’m a great believer in the AAAS’s approach, which relies heavily on storytelling to advocate for science and policy in service of societal good.

I’ve encouraged my faculty here at UTSA to take AAAS workshops to learn how to most effectively share with the public the importance of the work we do.

I have also found that some of our best ambassadors are students who participate in research and scholarly work. In speaking with their peers, they can be important contributors in communicating impact to our broader communities.

How will your UTSA experience inform your contributions to Tufts’ commitment to becoming an antiracist institution?

Based in one of the most diverse cities in the country, UTSA is an Hispanic-serving institution—very proudly so. We take very seriously the need to reflect the students we serve. We invest the resources to recruit diverse faculty. But, then, to be successful in retaining this talent, we also work hard to build a sense of belonging.

I believe in looking at research, teaching, and learning through the lens of inclusive excellence—and not doing it not transactionally, but instead by weaving it into the fabric of the institution. I am a diverse thinker and value the same in the diverse faculty with whom I have surrounded myself.

Throughout my career I have trained and continue to train many first-generation students who have gone on to do great things and of whom I am immensely proud. These are the lenses that I will carry with me to Massachusetts.

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