Persistence for the common good: UW alumna Penny Lukito leads Indonesia FDA

Dr. Penny Lukito
Dr. Penny Lukito

“You have to be brave enough to be different and be persistent for the common good.”

This philosophy has been a guiding star for UW alumna Dr. Penny Lukito, who leads Indonesia’s FDA.

Lukito was appointed as head of the Badan Pengawas Obat dan Makanan (translated as National Agency of Drug and Food Control of Indonesia) by President Joko Widodo on July 20, 2016. The agency, informally known as BPOM or Indonesia’s FDA, is responsible for protecting the public through oversight and control of vaccines, medications, food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics, among other products and services.

“I never dreamed of reaching this position—my dream has always been to contribute to my country,” Lukito said. “With my background in civil engineering, it may seem to be a surprise that I now have the position of the head of Indonesia’s FDA. People you meet would be surprised in Indonesia because usually the FDA is linked someone in pharmaceutical or food science industries. But my background in civil and environmental engineering is also related.”

Lukito has held several roles in Indonesia’s government that have allowed her to make contributions toward the growth and prosperity of Indonesia. In 2005, she served as Inspectorate for Institutional Performance at Indonesia’s National Development Planning Agency. Her success in this role saw her continuing into greater leadership positions as Director for Development Evaluation Systems and Deputy Minister for Development Performance Evaluation. In 2012, she was promoted to Senior Policy Adviser for the Ministry of Planning.

Upon appointing Lukito, Widodo charged her with making reforms to Indonesia’s food and drug control. Since then, she has been exploring all facets of the food and drug industries, from regulations on permits and safety to moving Indonesia toward self-sufficiency in the production of drugs and vaccines. Food safety has remained an equally important issue for Lukito, with nutrition, hygienic operations, and availability being of great importance.

In looking to bolster Indonesia’s practices, she has made it a point to explore models of similar agencies in other countries and establish partnerships that can create change and efficiencies in sharing information.

“Since I began in my role, I have met with several national regulatory authorities and have established MOUs, especially with the U.S. FDA,” Lukito said. “We’re learning, expanding even. For example, online trading is increasing and coming with that also is the challenge of illegal trade of food and drug. That’s borderless. We don’t talk much about cybercrime related to the trading of food and drugs. But now, I think it is a topic that increasingly needs to be talked about. So, there should be more sharing of data, sharing results of scientific research, and, of course, a need from others for more developed research. That is why I like to engage colleagues and staff from the U.S. FDA for their own capacity in research, as well as university research, emerging research, and also, of course, trade related to countries here.”

Collaboration with UW–Madison

An important point of collaboration has been with the CALS Food Research Institute (FRI). Lukito was connected to FRI through the Indonesia Alumni Chapter in Jakarta. The connection led to discussions on capacity building for Indonesia, with FRI experts at UW–Madison providing food safety trainings virtually to colleagues in Indonesia.

“First, we started with food safety,” Lukito said. “But then, as time went on, and with the pandemic coming and various biopharmaceutical issues coming up related to vaccines, we began wondering what was happening at UW related to the research on immunology, also possibly biochemistry and biotech in pharmaceuticals.”

Indonesia delegation and UW-Madison
Dr. Penny Lukito and delegates representing Indonesia met with Dean Kathryn VandenBosch and International Division Dean Guido Podestá to sign an agreement laying the ground for future collaboration.

During a visit to campus in September 2021, Lukito toured the FRI laboratory at UW. This has led to several ideas she plans to explore on returning to Indonesia, such as considering points of contamination, issues of quality, and the food process that could be potentially explored through further collaborations with UW–Madison and other agencies. An agreement signed on Sept. 23 by Lukito, CALS Dean Kathryn VandenBosch, and International Division Dean Guido Podestá will create further avenues for food safety training, sharing research, and open more avenues for partnership.

Education, values, and experience abroad

Lukito saw the benefits of an international education at a young age, attending high school in Michigan while her father pursued a PhD in agriculture. It was then that she first spent time in Wisconsin, while her father took summer courses at UW–Madison.

Lukito earned a bachelor’s in environmental engineering from Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) in 1988. After graduating, she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she completed a master’s in city planning in 1994. When it came time to pursue her PhD, memories of summers spent in Wisconsin, along with her father’s advice to complete her education in Madison, led her back to UW.

With her husband, who was also pursuing a PhD in civil and environmental engineering, Lukito enrolled at UW–Madison. Lukito immersed herself in her studies and research, finding a mentor and friend in faculty like Professor Emeritus Paul Berthouex. Also, for Lukito, the community itself was a major benefit as she had begun to raise her own family.

“What stands out most here is the beauty—the landscape of the UW–Madison,” Lukito said. “Especially if someone already has family but wants to continue with school, I think this is the best place. You are able to get a good primary education right there.”

Lukito said that an international education was an opportunity to learn not only from field and technical experts, but also to explore new values and perspectives. She noted the value of learning about U.S. democracy, being open minded, and effecting change.

“It (international education) expands our horizons,” Lukito said. “We learn from other people different from us—different backgrounds, different cultures, especially. Also, the diversity of people, the diversity of students in the classroom, that’s what adds to the values we receive from an education in the U.S.”

To students preparing to pursue their own path and create an impact, Lukito dares them to have the courage to be different.

“From education I get my confidence,” Lukito said. “From confidence, to speak up. To speak my thoughts, to be persistent is what I learned from school… You can create a difference. You have to be brave enough and different.”

Story by: Steve Barcus, communications director, International Division