May 14, 2011/The Oakland Press
By Karen Workman
On any given day, Virinder Moudgil — upon finishing a full day’s work as provost for Oakland University — can be found after hours in Dodge Hall, working in his lab to study the effects of hormones on breast cancer cells.
“This is still home. Wilson Hall is work. This is home. And you’ve got to do both,” said Moudgil, who has been vice president for academic affairs and provost at the university since 2001.
Ted Montgomery, media relations director for Oakland, said Moudgil often works a 14- or 16-hour day.
“He wears his provost hat during the day and dons his lab coat at night,” Montgomery said. “I’m always amazed at the time he puts in and his dedication to helping our students.”
Moudgil said he lives in Rochester Hills with his wife, Parviz, but jokes that, “If you ask my wife, she would deny that I live at home because I am always here.”
From India to Oakland
Moudgil grew up in Ludhiana, a northern border city in India, and attended college at Banaras Hindu University.
“I got into a program on aging and hormones — how people grow old, what hormones have to do with the aging process,” Moudgil said. “Those were interesting days because some of my earlier work was published in American journals.”
He was only in his mid-20s but already drawing the attention of world leaders in that area of research. His work eventually landed him a job at the Mayo Clinic.
“I could have stayed there longer,” Moudgil said, but he wanted to have his own laboratory rather than work in labs ran by other scientists.
He turned down positions at two “very prestigious institutions” in his search to find a university that would provide him with his own lab.
“So my professor said, ‘You know what? There is this little university in Michigan. I have not been there but they will pay for your way (to interview there). Why don’t you check it out?’” Moudgil said.
Two things struck Moudgil immediately upon visiting the university — the “lovely, beautiful” campus and the fact that professors working at Oakland had their research funded by major institutions like the National Institute of Health.
“That impressed me,” he said. “I thought, ‘If these folks are here and they’re leaders in the field and they’re already funded for their research, this must be a good place. It’s small, but quality.’”
He was offered the job and, in 1976, joined the university’s faculty.
“I took a pay cut to come here,” Moudgil said. “I think it is very important to mention that because my goal in life was not that I get a title or more money. I wanted to have a career where I could build and have some substantive outcome of my time.”
“I’m coming here from the airport and thinking, ‘Wait a minute, is this where I want to work? They don’t even have regular roads,’” Moudgil said.
In the end, the dirt road didn’t deter him from taking the job. As a professor at the university, he’d witness not just the paving of Walton Road but also the continued growth and expansion of the university.
Moudgil consistently applied for and received research grants, selecting the top nine or 10 students from his biochemistry or endocrinology courses to work with him in the lab. He eventually became the department chair and was asked in 2000 to consider taking the provost job.
“It was driven by a number of factors — not my desire, because I was traveling, I was at the height of my scientific career,” Moudgil said. “This was not something I wanted to do, to sacrifice my scientific ambitions.”
He continued: “But it was a calling from the campus. It was a calling from my colleagues — many had nominated me, many staff had nominated me and some students had nominated me, to urge me to step up.”
Moudgil said, “Oakland was at stake. I said, ‘OK, if the institution needs me, I’ll do it.’”
He’s been provost since June 2001 but decided not to leave his lab work behind him. He has fewer students these days — just three right now — but the research they’ve done into breast cancer has been published nationally.
“We found that the number of proteins change as a result of hormone administration to tumor cells,” Moudgil said.
Essentially, adding particular hormones can increase the number of cells that block cancer-causing cells.
With the university building the William Beaumont School of Medicine, Moudgil now has opportunities to take his findings from the lab and see whether it can affect change for patients.
“As a Ph.D., I cannot touch a human, I cannot interview a human unless I have permission, I cannot advise and neither will I try,” Moudgil said. “But having Beaumont as a partner, and they have about 40,000 human specimens that are available for research after appropriate permissions, so now we have access to clinical materials, clinical advice, clinical expertise, and with time, we’ll tap those.”
Getting energy from work
Now in his 60s, Moudgil gives no inclination of slowing his pace.
“The moment I cannot walk up the stairs (in Dodge Hall), that’s the time to retire,” Moudgil said. “That’s my bottom line. Which means, as long as I’m healthy, I’m able to do things, I have energy — obviously I’ve aged but my enthusiasm for what I do, my energy level, most of the time when I walk with people, they ask me to slow down.”
As for how he keeps up that energy level, Moudgil says, “Everything helps.”
“You know, if you feel what you’re doing is meaningful, that’s energy,” Moudgil said. “What brings you down is when you feel that whatever you’re touching is not working. Then you say, ‘Why am I coming to work?’ ”
He added: “When I come in the lab, I feel good. When I go to the office, I feel good.”
As a faculty member, Moudgil said the focus is on “building your own career” and the careers of your students.
“When you’re provost, the focus is no more on you,” he said. “Now the real issue is how can I help others grow? How can I help others become better? How can I empower other faculty to rise to the level they’re capable of?”
He called it a “much more satisfying” role. Despite his passion for the provost job, he remains to determined to continue his scientific research.
Amelita Sanchez, Moudgil’s longtime research assistant and a doctoral candidate at Oakland, credited Moudgil with her choice to pursue a doctoral degree.
“He’s the type of teacher everyone should have,” she said.
Moudgil also credits his varied interests — from arts to world history, politics, poetry and more — as helping him from losing interest in any one particular thing.
“If you were only doing one thing all the time, it’d become monotonous,” he said.
Sanchez remarked on Moudgil’s extensive range of interests and the knowledge he has of each of them.
“He is the quintessential renaissance man,” she said.