Kenneth Lim, MD, PhD, MPhil, FASN, is a physician-scientist, nephrologist and serial entrepreneur with a rapidly growing national and global reputation as one of the brightest young leaders in his field. Adding to his numerous professional awards and honors, Lim has been named to the Indianapolis Business Journal’s prestigious “Forty Under 40” award.
An assistant professor of medicine and adjunct assistant professor of anatomy, cell biology and physiology at Indiana University School of Medicine, and attending physician at IU Health, Lim, 38, was recruited in the spring of 2020 from Harvard University, where he was an attending physician at The Massachusetts General Hospital and Faculty Member at Harvard Medical School. Lim completed his clinical and research fellowships on the prestigious Harvard Joint Massachusetts General Hospital–Brigham and Women’s Hospital nephrology program. In the short time he’s been at IU, Lim has established the first Cardiopulmonary Exercise Test (CPET) laboratory dedicated to the study of patients with kidney disease in the United States.
“We are thrilled to have won a truly talented and dynamic emerging leader of exemplary caliber, who has made distinct contributions in the life sciences and health care,” said Sharon Moe, MD, associate dean for clinical and translational sciences and director of the Division of Nephrology at IU School of Medicine. “Ken has shown incredible commitment, initiative and dedication to advancing the field of nephrology in his early career so far—through research, clinical practice and academic entrepreneurship. He is an inspiration to all those he meets.”
Called (by God) to medicine
Lim’s path to becoming an innovative leader in nephrology began unconventionally. He wasn’t one of those kids who always knew he wanted to be a doctor. He was born in Singapore and grew up in London, England amid a community of faith, led by his father, Rev. Dr. Joseph Lim, whom he calls “the most influential person in my life—a true pioneer and hero in the Christian ministry.”
Lim said it was an encounter with God at age 17 that set his course toward medicine. In the United Kingdom, to qualify for entrance to institutes of higher education, students participate in “A-Levels” in the last two years of high school. Lim, who had been a part of incredible missions work since an early age across Europe, had also encountered many different challenges. By the end of his high school tenure, he had passed only one subject in his A-levels with a grade “C” and any possibility of further higher education seemed unlikely.
Since an early age, Lim had been deeply moved by global issues of humanitarian crisis, particularly to those who are suffering, afflicted by disease and the victims of injustice, which has since become a calling.
“By the end of high school, when all seemed lost, I remembered that there are people in our world who suffer in silence and that God is so much greater than a season of academic failure” Lim said.
One day, shortly after this at age 17, he was walking up a hill, looked toward the heavens and cried out a prayer that now seems humorous. “I actually said to God, ‘I'm Asian, I wear glasses—I should be smart!’”
He wasn’t expecting what happened next.
“I just remember at that time having a real moment of divine encounter,” Lim said. “I heard the voice of God say to me, ‘Ken, I have never once forgotten you. I have a plan for you.’ The Lord was calling me to something greater than myself. He said he would give me a tool that would be in medicine. So, a long story cut short, through a series of miraculous events, God took me from a struggling high school student on a seemingly impossible journey all the way into medical school and beyond.”
“Looking back, a simple truth became clear to me: It does not matter how educated or uneducated, or how rich or poor you are—it is the anointing of God that qualifies you into his calling for your life.”
Lim would go on to graduate from The University of Warwick and The University of Cambridge in England, among Britain’s most prestigious institutions. How he ended up at Harvard is another journey infused with divine guidance and a bit of humor.
Lim’s parents, who were pastors and missionaries, were at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts at the time. Wanting to move closer to them, Lim began looking for internship opportunities in the area.
“I saw this beautiful red logo from an institution I knew nothing about. Growing up as an inner-city kid in London, people only talked about Cambridge and Hogwarts,” Lim said. “I interviewed for an internship position in research, and when I ended up at this institution in Boston, Massachusetts and started looking around, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, this is actually a pretty good institution—something’s different here!’ It was called Harvard Medical School. So that began this incredible journey of learning to trust that nothing is ever impossible when God is on our side.”
Since then, Lim rapidly excelled the ranks over his more than 10 years at Harvard and was later awarded promotion to join the faculty at Harvard University in 2018, gaining national and international recognition for his achievements, prior to joining the faculty at IU in 2020.
Today, Lim is regularly invited to share his story at many conferences, churches and youth groups throughout the world, and his story is one that has already touched and inspired the hearts of many young people.
Inspired innovation and entrepreneurship
At Harvard, Lim was mentored by Ravi I. Thadhani, MD, MPH, chief academic officer of Mass General Brigham, academic dean at Harvard Medical School, Director of the Broad Institute at Harvard-MIT and standing member of the FDA’s cardio-renal advisory panel. Thadhani was one of the key leaders who inspired Lim and taught him how to be a transformational strategist, a dynamic leader and global thinker.
“Ken was one of our top fellows among some of the world’s most distinguished graduates,” Thadhani wrote in a letter supporting Lim’s “Forty Under 40” nomination. “Since then, he has dedicated his research to combating cardiovascular complications in patients with kidney failure, which has become a global epidemic with profound socioeconomic burden and public health consequences.”
Lim’s research at Harvard pioneered the entry of CPET technology into the field of nephrology, for diagnosing and predicting cardiovascular risk in kidney patients, Thadhani said. His work has many potential implications such as to potentially improve prioritization strategies for kidney patients waiting for transplants and improve survival rates. At IU, Lim not only developed the nation’s first CPET lab for kidney patients but also launched a state-of-the-art translational laboratory for drug discovery, in an effort to develop novel targeted therapies for cardiovascular disease in patients with kidney failure.
“The reality is that kidney disease and the complications of kidney disease, such as cardiovascular issues, are real issues of humanitarian crises today. These are conditions that are rapidly growing and there are very few, if any, direct medical therapies for it,” Lim said. “Kidney disease is rampant, not only in the United States but in third world countries as well, and these non-communicable diseases have now become a focal point of the World Health Organization and discussions in the past United Nations High-Level meeting.”
Lim’s discoveries have led to an impressive portfolio of publications in top-tier journals, many ranking in the top 1 percent of most-cited articles in clinical medicine. In November 2021, Lim was inducted into Sigma Xi, a prestigious scientific research honor society which recognizes leading scientists and engineers, including more than 200 who went on to win the Nobel Prize.
“Ken is a man of great humility,” Thadhani said. “All who work with him have enormous respect for him, and he is the kind of person who would rather do than be seen doing. He is one of the few who truly lives up to the praises.”
In addition to Lim’s significant research contributions, he continues to be engaged in starting new companies at the forefront of innovation that can have a real tangible impact on society. He is co-founder of Ambassadors Corporation, a Kansas City-based incubator company which has birthed several high-potential start-up companies in next-generation technologies. He is co-founder of OVIBIO Corporation, a pre-clinical biotech company that previously won residence at Lab Central in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Indiana, Lim has been invited to serve on the Scientific Advisory Board of MBX Biosciences, a clinical-stage biotech company committed to creating therapies to treat rare endocrine diseases.
“I quickly learned that entrepreneurship was an incredibly important effector arm for scientists to translate discoveries into products and therapies that can change lives and have sustainable impact,” Lim said.
A champion in situations of humanitarian crises
Lim is a devout Christian and his work is greatly shaped by his faith. He is a globally engaged leader and a brilliant strategist who helped serve some of the most challenging situations of human suffering.
“My prayer is that the legacy of my work will leave behind hope in a world in crisis, by creating potential solutions to challenging issues of humanitarian need in health care,” Lim said. “We accomplish this by committing to the opposition of silence and a daily fight against injustice and suffering, through innovative research, entrepreneurship and the delivery of medical care beyond borders.”
He has deployed to some of the world’s most afflicted and often unstable regions to deliver medical care and meet critical needs of victims of humanitarian crises, such as those afflicted by war, poverty and natural disasters. Lim’s many medical missions include being among the first American doctors to respond to the devastating eruption of volcano Fuego in Guatemala in 2018, that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent victims.
“I remember being in an ambulance and beside me was a Marine, a paramedic and a police officer. When everyone else was looking to escape the deadly pyroclastic flow of lava, we made the decision to head up the erupting volcano to rescue as many as we could,” Lim recalled. “The experience was life-changing and has prepared me for greater challenges in our world to come.”
Lim serves on the board of directors for several nonprofit organizations and has been an advisor or consultant to leaders in nonprofits, diverse industries and government on various issues of humanitarian crises in health care and in his field of research. In Indianapolis, he has helped support a newly launched kidney disease screening program for the Burmese-Chin community, led by IU nephrologist Irene Nunuk, MD. He has appeared on various television and media programs discussing important issues of humanitarian crises.
Thadhani calls Lim “a champion who is full of relentless compassion.” The field of nephrology is currently a medical specialty facing a national and global workforce crisis. Lim is among only a handful of MD-PhD-trained physician-scientists in this critical field, noted Moe, past president of the American Society of Nephrology.
Thinking back to his days as a struggling student, Lim encourages others not to minimize the impact they can have on the world. He believes that with the many geopolitical and economic issues that are occurring in our world resulting in increasing populations inflicted by humanitarian hardships, that now more than ever is there a great need for physician-scientists to creatively translate their work for global impact. Lim said, “Innovation can never happen in the absence of relationship,” and he is well-connected with leaders across many industries around the world.
“Today, my work is both intensely medical and intensely personal, and seeks to bring an action of intent, where authority and courage must be framed in compassion,” Lim said.
“Never be afraid to boldly step out to become global thinkers and visionary leaders rooted in your core spiritual and moral principles,” he advises those he now mentors. “Walk in courage and fearlessness to bring transformational influence and reformational change in your sphere of influence.”
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Laura is a senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications. A native Hoosier, she has 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.