Susan Desmond-Hellmann is chancellor at UC San Francisco. After spending time in the pharmacy business with her father and role model, Desmond-Hellmann pursued her love of science, working for Bristol-Myers Squibb before joining Genentech, where she served as president of product development for five years. In November, she was named one of the World’s Seven Most Powerful Innovators by Forbes magazine.
Where do you find motivation?
I am very motivated by two things. First is having the opportunity to participate in making life better for human health, either by preventing or treating conditions that cause suffering or premature death. Second is being able to work with talented individuals who are making incredible discoveries. I have always enjoyed science and technology and had a great appreciation for seeing talented individuals find something we didn’t know before their work came along.
Whom do you look to for support?
The most important person is my husband, Nick Hellmann. I also look to a physician who I met 28 years ago at UCSF. I often seek support from my colleagues and friends, but continue to rely on my family.
What has been a particularly challenging moment in your life?
It was very challenging for me to find a career path as a clinical scientist when I returned from working for Global Health in Uganda in the late ’80s. I overcame the moment in a very practical way: by becoming a community oncologist and caring for patients, then eventually returning to clinical research in private industry.
You have held numerous positions. Which have you enjoyed the most?
At this point, I would say it is a tie: I had a wonderful time as president of product development at Genentech and am enjoying the job as chancellor at UCSF very much. But as an eternal optimist who likes work, I have been fortunate to enjoy most of the experiences I have had over my career.
Is there one thing you wish to do that you haven’t done yet?
I would like to be a more effective writer and would like to write a book or two.
What one piece of writing has had an impact on you?
It is very challenging for me to pick just one, but I will say that reading the Lincoln biography by James M. McPherson had a big impact on me. Lincoln is someone I admire so much and he was someone who had many setbacks and was imperfect in so many ways. This book, along with many of my own experiences, taught me that you don’t need a personality transplant — or to be perfect — to lead effectively.
What inspired you to become chancellor of UCSF?
UCSF is a wonderful institution with outstanding individuals, a mission of “Advancing Health Worldwide,” which speaks to me personally, and a personal affinity for leadership. Also, the search committee asked me to apply.
What do you value most in life and work?
I value continuous learning, talented individuals, clarity, trying to make a contribution and having fun. As a leader, I want to make sure that the environment at UCSF attracts and brings out the best in talented individuals.