Feature left bracketright bracket Fall 2020

Stephen Rusckowski ’79

Leading Quest Diagnostics Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Forty years ago, when Steve Rusckowski had his freshly awarded mechanical engineering degree in hand, he never envisioned himself standing at a White House podium addressing the nation about testing for the worst pandemic the world has seen in more than a century. 

But that’s exactly where Rusckowski, chairman, CEO, and president of Quest Diagnostics (and WPI trustee), found himself in mid-March. The significance wasn’t lost on him. After all, his career is driven by the very topic he was discussing—using every available technology to make human life better. 

He might not have expected to have a career in healthcare, but it is one he is suited for in both skill and ambition for doing good. “It’s the best thing that ever happened,” he says. “The field of medicine and healthcare is incredibly complex and technology rich, and it has incredibly gnarly economic and business considerations. It’s provided me with a platform of continuous learning.”

Clearly, the COVID-19 crisis has taken Rusckowski’s role in a direction he wasn’t expecting, but his entire career has prepared him for the challenge. His passion for healthcare and his conviction in Quest’s role in diagnoses and the resulting healthcare decisions, propels every decision he makes. Each step he took along the way to Quest’s top spot offered an astute ability to weigh business decisions and technological advances with the needs of people who use Quest’s products to make some of life’s most significant health choices.

Rusckowski at Quest’s Marlborough, MA lab, which features a team of laboratory support specialists including MDs, PhDs, researchers, and genetic counselors.

Since the White House tapped him for his knowledge, life has run at warp speed, he says. Within days of an initial phone call from Vice President Mike Pence, Rusckowski sat with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force (including White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Debbie Birx and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci) to discuss how to tackle this problem and how to work together to ramp up desperately needed coronavirus testing for the American public.

“It’s been a wild ride,” he says of his time since that early March phone call. The pandemic, however, has highlighted exactly what Rusckowski has championed all along—the importance of low-cost, high-accuracy diagnostic tests.

“It goes back to that simple notion that diagnostic tests are a very small fraction of cost,” he says, “but are such an important part of healthcare.” He frequently discusses how the low-cost value
of testing (approximately two or three percent of healthcare costs) has an impact that informs about 70 percent of patients’ next decisions about their healthcare. For some, it’s as simple as taking
an antibiotic to clear up an infection. For others, test results could chart cancer treatments. And in the case of COVID-19, the results of that diagnostic test set in motion a domino effect on personal health choices and then ripples into individual lifestyle and potential community spread of anyone with whom that person has been in contact. 

The humble diagnostic test has shown its superpowers. Rusckowski isn’t surprised. 

Routine Testing to Global Repercussions

Even for a professional immersed in healthcare choices and how they shape the lives of people, Rusckowski never imagined that testing and the diagnostics industry would be propelled to front page news and
an oft-discussed topic for people who never gave it a thought before COVID-19. While Quest’s COVID-19 test is getting the most attention right now, its products range from routine bloodwork to cancer markers to genetic tests.

Quest first started testing for COVID-19 on March 9 and within three months, Rusckowski reports, it was running more than 750,000 tests a week. In Massachusetts, where the coronavirus hit hard early on, Quest formed a fast partnership with the state to increase testing at the company’s Marlborough facility, where capacity skyrocketed to thousands of tests from Massachusetts patients daily.

Lifelong Learning as a Habit

A commitment to lifelong learning keeps Rusckowski always thinking ahead, imagining healthcare options of the future. But his ability to
be agile and to think critically is what has helped him move so quickly and surefooted on this COVID-19 part of his career. A lot of that, he says, was mastered at WPI.

“I am perpetually learning,” he confesses. The university’s approach to problem-solving offered him a conceptual framework
of how to tackle problems. “It brought home how you are going to approach things that are not black and white. You had to deal with ambiguity, and the problem solving at WPI created a great framework for doing that.”

Rusckowski grew up in Torrington, Connecticut, a leading location of manufacturing bearings, and its industrial environment left a big impression on him. The thriving Torrington Company occupied a large space in the town’s daily life—he says mechanical engineering seemed a logical course of study to pursue. 

“Clearly going to college and getting a degree was an ambition they had for us and we had for ourselves,” Rusckowski says. When he arrived on campus, he saw there were lots of students in the same position. “I had a very humble background,” he says. “Getting into upper social mobility was what going to college was about. I found a student body that was a lot like me.” 

He applied to several schools, but WPI rose to the top of the list for a couple of reasons. “Engineering was the path I thought would work for me,” he says. “And WPI had a good reputation in my town.” While his sister was a scientist, his older brother was an engineer, and his cousin a WPI grad. With a generous financial aid package, and his parents’ encouragement of higher ed, WPI was his decision in the end.

The newly introduced WPI Plan helped him thrive. “It gave you the freedom to study what you wanted to do,” he says, “but you had to apply yourself. You had guidance to get there, and now you needed
to apply yourself and get skills. You had to learn the subject matter to be a functioning engineer.” 

Even Rusckowski, who champions tenacity and hard work, says the process was hardly like a lightbulb going on. “I remember Professor Zwiep, head of the Mechanical Engineering Department, saying the school was preparing us for lifelong learning,” he says.

“I was an 18-year-old kid and was wondering what he was talking about. It didn’t become clear to me until I got out. There was always the tension to take the easier path. You know, for an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old, not all of us wanted to work very hard, including me. But that was part of the learning process and a helpful part of those four years was to figure out, in a clear and definitive way, what you needed to do to become a professional engineer.” 

The experiences of taking control of his path crystallized with his independent study in physics, a progressive approach at the time. It gave Rusckowski a foundation for a career and a motivation to take the hard classes and to push himself. “Doing that really taught you to learn and gave you the discipline for doing that,” he says. “When I took physics, I understood how algebra, trigonometry, and calculus were applied, and it became useful.
I struggled with the theoretical and had an easier time with the practical. Bringing it to real life was helpful to me.”

Balancing Academics and Social Life

Life at WPI was rigorous, but it was also a lot of fun. “I quickly developed friendships that extend to this day,” says Rusckowski. He joined a fraternity for a while but, he says, “it didn’t stick.” Instead, he became friends with people across all the fraternities. He was a familiar and friendly face behind the bar or as doorman at the Goat’s Head Pub when it was tucked into the basement of Sanford Riley Hall. He developed friendships through his mechanical engineering major, and became close to the late Bill “Tuna” Trask, whose decades-long leadership of career services guided students to their next steps and whose lasting friendships left an even more indelible mark. 

“I had a pretty broad group of friends over those years,” he says with obvious fondness. “I had a great experience and learned a lot about life.” To this day, about a dozen of those same friends stay connected and still get together about once a year. In fact, when Rusckowski received that call from the White House in March, he initially thought it was one of his WPI buddies pulling a prank on him. “That wouldn’t have been unusual,” he says with a laugh.

Moving from Drafting Board to Corner Office

Rusckowski’s rise through the ranks started with summertime work at the drafting boards of engineering-manufacturing companies. While he was able to apply his skills, those summer jobs also opened his eyes to something else that interested him much more—management. Seeing all the work that went on in corner offices intrigued him and motivated him. “I wanted a job where I could run things,” he says. “I was interested in the role of business and management.”

Procter & Gamble hired him after graduation and put him in charge of managing a team of tradespeople who were twice his age. “It was a pretty maturing experience,” he says, and it helped shape his next steps. He knew that the management path was his calling and with that came a whole new set of skills he needed, so he went on to earn an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

“My career ended up in healthcare and medicine, but I never thought 40 years ago that would be the case,” he says. “I’d like to be able to tell you I had a desire to save the world, but when I came out of business school, I wanted to work with a company that was high tech. Hewlett-Packard was progressive for the time and had a medical division in Massachusetts. I joined the company and wanted to stay in Massachusetts.”

That was in 1984, and Rusckowski has been in medical tech and the healthcare field ever since. He eventually moved through roles at HP, becoming the SVP and GM of the Healthcare Systems Group in 1999. The instrumentation businesses of HP then spun off to create Agilent Technologies in 2000, where he continued until he led the management team to sell the healthcare business to Philips in 2001. There he had a number of roles until he became CEO of Philips Healthcare in 2005. He left in 2012 to become CEO and President of Quest Diagnostics; he was elected chairman in 2016.

Circling Back to WPI

Rusckowski says the process of the work he did at WPI resonates today—and it’s probably stronger than ever before. “You were doing work with other team members so you felt there was more of a team-oriented approach with your classes rather than competitive,” he says. “It was a feeling of ‘We’re all in this together.’”

In the midst of a global pandemic, the “in this together” theme is pivotal for Rusckowski. “I knew nothing about medicine, healthcare technology, or diagnoses in 1984,” he says, “and I have done nothing but learn since then. I was able to apply what I wanted to do: be in business, and do good in the world. Eventually, this has become more than a life occupation—it has become a life vocation.” [J]

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