Some days we could all use someone cheering us on with a “You can do it!’’ to get through the week. It’s second nature to Altaf Darvesh, Ph.D., to deliver those extra doses of encouragement to Northeast Ohio Medical University students as they work toward becoming the next generation of physicians and pharmacists.
“For me, it’s very important that students be taught well and mentored well. I think failing to boost a student’s morale or hurting a student’s morale is an absolute sin. I should not be in my job if I’m not encouraging my students,” says the associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences and psychiatry.
When students are plagued by self-doubt about their career plans, Dr. Darvesh encourages them to think outside the traditional norms of medicine and pharmacy. Take, for example, a third-year College of Pharmacy student who was vacillating about whether to obtain an M.B.A. in addition to a Pharm.D. Dr. Darvesh reminded the student of the world of possibilities that would await a student with a dual degree.
“I told him, of course he should do an M.B.A.! A Pharm.D. and M.B.A. is a fantastic combination,” says Dr. Darvesh, with characteristic enthusiasm. “You could work in big pharma, you could start your own online company, you can sell herbal remedies and cosmetics, you can go work for regulatory agencies, non-profit organizations, think tanks — pharmacists can do so much! Some students ask me about law degrees, too. I remind them that the College of Pharmacy dean, Richard Kasmer, is a lawyer as well as a Pharm.D. They could work for a medical legal firm or teach pharmacy law, as Dr. Kasmer does, with those degrees. It’s your life,” he says.
A scholastic start
Born into a close-knit Shia Muslim family in Mumbai, India, Dr. Darvesh himself took the road less travelled, eventually leaving his home country for life in the U.S. A self-proclaimed nerd, Dr. Darvesh jokingly describes himself in childhood as the “shy little kid with glasses.” But he’s also a people person, and in the 2017-18 year, he was the first person to be selected by students for the honor of commencement hooder for both the College of Medicine and College of Pharmacy.
Young Altaf was drawn to teaching from an early age. He enjoyed teaching Shakespeare to ninth grade students on Teacher’s Day (an occasion when Indian educators were honored with a day off) so much that he considered becoming an English teacher, but his practical father persuaded him to explore career options in the sciences.
From his promising start as valedictorian of his high school, Dr. Darvesh continued on to earn a bachelor of pharmacy degree, then a master of pharmacology degree. He had begun to apply to Ph.D. pharmacology programs in the United States when he was recruited to work for Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical company — a flattering offer, but one that came with a choice.
The road to research
“When Pfizer called to offer me a job, I told them I didn’t know anything about clinical research and they told me that soon I would, because they train their people well. It was one of those life-changing moments. They offered me two positions. One was monitoring a schizophrenia clinical trial and the other was monitoring a malaria clinical trial,” says Dr. Darvesh. How to choose?
“I went home and spoke to my dad. My father was a very strict man and a very practical guy. I showed him all the folders and information and he said I should go for the schizophrenia trial. I said, ‘Why?’ He told me to look at the sites. Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai — they’re all cities where I would fly into that offered good infrastructure and hotels to visit the psychiatric hospitals. Then he said, ‘Look at the sites for the malaria trials — they’re all in Eastern India. You would have to take the train, and they’re all in interior areas so you would have to take a bus, too; and just think…malaria patients are all in swampy, malaria-prone areas. You might get malaria, too.”
“My father also said, ‘The last I heard, mental illness was not infectious,’” says Dr. Darvesh, with a bit of the dry humor that’s always in the background of a conversation with him.
His decision to work on the schizophrenia clinical trial became one of his life’s turning points, leading him to become interested in psychiatry and neuropsychopharmacology.
A first for everything
Nearly a decade later after completing his Ph.D at the University of Cincinnati and post-doctoral fellowship in Portland, Oregon, Dr. Darvesh was faced with another life-changing decision: whether to accept a position as a faculty educator at Northeast Ohio Medical University. Shortly after taking the appointment, he was tasked with delivering his first lecture on psychopharmacology to second-year College of Medicine students.
“I was given a date in March and I started preparing over Christmas break. I was terrified. It took me until about mid-February to do a four-hour lecture from scratch. That was the first time I taught on campus and they clapped. The professor told me, ‘They clap for no one,’” says Dr. Darvesh with quiet pride.
Ever since, he has taught herbal medicine, nutrition, alternative medicine, toxicology, cancer drugs, antibiotics and other psychiatric medications.
“If a student asks a difficult question, that’s a compliment to me because they were taught so well. If you ask a tough question, that means you know the topic; if you don’t know the topic, you don’t ask any good questions,” says Dr. Darvesh.
Students come first
If you don’t believe the career advisors who say you’ll have an average of seven career changes over your lifetime, talk to Dr. Darvesh. Now in his mid-40s, he’s already been a pharmacist, pharmacologist, and a pharmacology educator.
Students have been his greatest source of pride and satisfaction.
“If there’s anything I love more than pharmacology, its teaching pharmacology. I think every student is equally important. Whether it is a valedictorian or someone who struggles in class, every student needs attention,” he says.
For those struggling in class or just searching for a listening ear, Dr. Darvesh reminds students that his door is always open.
“Students are always welcome to come talk to me. Whether they’re having financial issues, housing, roommate issues, or want to discuss career plans – I just listen to everything they say,” says Dr. Darvesh.