A poor childhood in Guyana spent watching his mother get pushed around gave Frank Douglas, Ph.D. '73, M.D. '77, an early awareness of injustice. At age 12 he was challenging his school principal on fairness, despite the risk to his academic future.
Fortunately that principal eventually gave him a wonderful letter of recommendation. And many years later, when Douglas worked for a pharmaceutical company and threatened to resign over some problematic practices, the CEO also listened and instituted changes -- one of which resulted in the approval of Allegra, a drug Douglas had developed. Allegra's popularity helped save the floundering company.
But not all Douglas' efforts were appreciated. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology refused to act on his recommendations to correct the perception of discrimination against minorities, so in 2007 Douglas resigned from the faculty and his directorship of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation, which he founded.
He wasn't listened to by the Cornell students who took over Willard Straight Hall in 1969, either. "There were a couple of us graduate students who were trying to advise the undergraduates," recalls Douglas. "One day they sacked us because they considered us too slow and a little bit suspect."
In his professional life, patients have always been the center of Douglas' concerns as a chemist and a physician, he says. In 2009, Douglas became CEO and president of the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron, Ohio (ABIA), where he puts his ability to translate basic research into effective projects to good use. One of Douglas' "brain children" is ABIA's Accountable Care Community, an initiative that unites physicians and health care organizations to combat disease.
"ABIA is unique because we have public, private and philanthropic institutions collaborating, so we are able to succeed where the individual partners alone could not," says Douglas.
ABIA is also leading a national initiative to apply "value-driven engineering" to the development of medical devices. "To train the next generation of innovators we need people working in interdisciplinary teams who are working on real problems, teaching them how to be entrepreneurial and think outside of the box," Douglas says.
"Our five ABIA centers are hubs of collaboration," he adds. "We leverage the technological expertise we have, like the University of Akron's polymer and biomaterials expertise, as the core of our research and technology, and we use our simulation and medical device centers to educate and for developing products to disseminate into the community."
Douglas' interdisciplinary approach has its roots at Cornell. "I not only had the usual suspects like physics and chemistry professors for my dissertation committee [in the field of physical chemistry], I also had someone from the ag school," he says. "It happened so easily at Cornell; it's one of the reasons I assumed thinking interdisciplinarily was just the normal thing to do."
In 2007 Douglas and his wife established the Dr. Frank L. and Lynnet Douglas Fund for Undergraduate Summer Research at Cornell to encourage minority students in the sciences. Douglas also serves on the Advisory Council of the College of Arts and Sciences and has participated in Entrepreneurship at Cornell programs.
Cornell's Ithaca campus, says Douglas, is "the place where my most significant growth occurred, not only scientifically and technically, but also as a person." He fondly recalls the atmosphere of excitement about science in the chemistry department. "I'm really appreciative of the impact of people like [chemistry professors] Roald Hoffmann and Harold Scheraga on my life," he says.
Douglas has received numerous distinctions, including the 2007 Black History Makers Award, and has twice been honored by industry and research leaders as the Global Pharmaceutical R&D Director of the Year in recognition of his leadership and success in improving innovation and productivity in pharmaceutical companies. In 2010 he was named one of GQ magazine's "Rock Stars of Science" in recognition for his contributions to drug discovery and development.
This story first appeared in Ezra Update.