Vertex CEO Reshma Kewalramani, MD’98, Receives 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award

Reshma Kewalramani, MD (CAS’98, CAMED’98), CEO and president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, is the 2023 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award for her outstanding career in medicine, healthcare leadership and as a top executive in the biotechnology industry.

The first female chief executive officer of a major U.S. biotechnology company, Kewalramani was honored at a luncheon held Friday, Sept. 22, in Hiebert Lounge as part of Alumni Weekend. She told the audience of friends, family, students, faculty and alumni that she didn’t make the career change from physician and teacher into biotech to become a CEO.

Pictured is Dr. Kewalramani (middle) with her BU mentors Associate Professor of Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics Judith Saide, PhD, (left) and Professor of Biochemistry & Cell Biology Vickery Trinkaus-Randall, PhD (right).
Pictured is Dr. Kewalramani (middle) with her BU mentors: Associate Professor of Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics Judith Saide, PhD, (left) and Professor of Biochemistry & Cell Biology Vickery Trinkaus-Randall, PhD (right).

“Not because I didn’t think I was capable, but because it wasn’t ever about the title,” she said. “I wanted to make medicines for patients. That’s what interested me.”

The Distinguished Alumni Award is presented to graduates of the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine to recognize their outstanding achievements, particularly to those who exemplify the school’s mission of addressing healthcare inequities and treating those who have traditionally been underserved and marginalized.  

Fellow classmate and former Alumni Board President Heidi Abelhady, MD (CAMED’98), presented the award and engaged Kewalramani in a casual question-and-answer session.

“I [gained confidence] at BU because it was a nurturing environment. It was a challenging environment. It was a place where you could make a real difference and people gave you the opportunity to do so,” said Kewalramani, referencing her work in the labs of Associate Professor of Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics Judith Saide, PhD, and Professor of Biochemistry & Cell Biology Vickery Trinkaus-Randall, PhD.

Kewalramani emigrated with her family from Mumbai, India, when she was 11. In an interview last year in the online journal Women Who Win, Kewalramani quipped there were three generally accepted career choices in her family: engineering, medicine or the priesthood.

“I chose medicine,” she said, intending to become a so-called “triple threat” conducting research, teaching medical students and residents, and seeing patients.

Dr. Kewalramani sitting at a table surrounded by other attendees
Following her graduation with honors from BU’s seven-year undergraduate and medical school program, Kewalramani completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and a fellowship in nephrology in the combined MGH/Brigham and Women’s Hospital program.

But her medical education fostered a love for clinical research, and in interviews Kewalramani said she realized the importance of new medicines in improving patients’ lives, and that the biotech industry was where the big advances in patient care were happening.

In 2004 she left a career as a physician and nephrologist at MGH and Brigham and Women’s Hospital to move to California with her husband and their twin boys where she spent the next dozen years at Amgen, one of the world’s largest biotech companies, ultimately serving as vice president and head of the U.S. medical organization.

Kewalramani returned to Boston in 2017 to work at Vertex, became chief medical officer and executive vice president of global medicines development and medical affairs in 2018 before she was named to the top job in 2019.

“Vertex captured my heart and imagination when I saw the opportunity to help create medicines that have a huge impact on people’s lives,” Kewalramani told BU Medicine in a 2019 interview. 

After a year-long transition period, Kewalramani began work as CEO and president in April 2020, facing the COVID-19 pandemic head-on while working remotely.

Boston-based Vertex develops medicines that treat the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis (CF) for up to 90 percent of all people with CF and is developing drugs to treat other serious diseases like sickle cell disease, beta thalassemia, type 1 diabetes, pain and APOL1-mediated kidney disease.

When asked by Abelhady about the momentous changes she has made in her career, Kewalramani advised the audience to be daring. “Take risks. Do things outside of your comfort zone. Try to live a life where you don’t look back and say ’I wish.’”

Kewalramani is particularly focused on supporting diversity of gender, race and ethnicity in the pipeline of students taking Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses.

Kewalramani has received a number of distinguished honors and awards for her leadership and contributions to science and innovation, including the Harvard Business School Alumni Achievement Award, the International Institute of New England Golden Door Award, the New England Council New Englander of the Year Award, and the Asian American Business Development Center Pinnacle Award. She has been named one of Boston Business Journal’s “Power 50,” one of Boston magazine’s most influential Bostonians, and one of Business Insider’s “10 People Transforming Healthcare.”

She also is a member of the school’s Dean’s Advisory Board and sits on the MGH board of trustees and Ginkgo Bioworks board of directors.  She is also on Year Up’s national board of directors and the board of directors for the Biomedical Science Careers Program (BSCP).