Many scientists relate chemistry to arts. Some to cooking. But to Wendy Young, drawing chemical structures and synthesizing new compounds is like speaking a unique language.
“Being able to speak this chemical language with other chemists feels, to me, like being part of a special club,” says Young.
And Young loves being in the club, even when she is faced with enormous challenges.
A chemically wired brain
Growing up in South Salem, New York, Young was surrounded by STEM enthusiastic family members. She naturally fell in love with math and science at a young age. In high school she frequently competed in math and science contests, and won many awards, including the New York Math League Finalist Award and the New York State Scholarship for Academic Excellence.
After graduating from high school, Young went to Wake Forest University to pursue her interests in science as well as music – her musical talent won her a scholarship. In the beginning she was taking both music and science courses, but soon decided to focus on science and kept music as a hobby.
“My brain is just wired to connect the dots and put the pieces together in chemistry,” Young recalls her decision. So much so that even reading music notes in spatial arrangements appeared scientific to her.
A solid start
The second year at Wake Forest, an organic chemistry course taught by Professor Huw M. L. Davies exposed Young to organic chemical research. It started with a practical decision. The university at the time just started a graduate program in chemistry and was trying to attract more students to research. Young’s initial plan was to participate in an accelerated bachelor’s/master’s degrees program and use the compensation to help pay for college tuition. Her ultimate goal at the time was to attend medical school after the research program. But she soon changed her mind about her career path.
“I ended up being totally engrossed in the organic synthesis research and realizing it could be a challenging yet rewarding career,” Young recalls one of her most important career decisions.
Her drive, positive attitude, and aptitude for chemical research showed. And Davies, Young’s advisor, noticed.
“Wendy stood out because she had such a positive attitude about everything she did,” Davies comments. “She started a very significant program for my group, a reaction between vinylcarbenes and pyrroles to make tropanes, which continued to be very productive for many years after she left.”
Young credits Davies for her solid start in the field. “He was a fantastic mentor, and was incredibly patient and encouraging,” Young remembers. And “I owe a lot to him for having gotten me off to such a solid start.”
Gaining experience and honing skills
After graduating from Wake Forest University, Young entered a PhD program at Princeton University, studying drug design and development under Professor Edward Taylor’s guidance. It was in Taylor’s lab, Young started to experience the real challenges as well as rewards associated with drug discovery.
Taylor’s group at the time was working with Eli Lilly to develop anti-cancer drugs. As part of the drug discovery team, Young collaborated with industry chemists at Lilly, designed and synthesized multiple novel folate-derived anti-cancer agents. Her dissertation, titled “Design and Synthesis of Folate Analogs as Anti-Tumor Agents,” won the prestigious H.W. Dodds-Princeton University Honorific Fellowship award. And the collaboration between Taylor’s team and Eli Lilly eventually led to the invention and launch of Alimta®, one of the most effective chemotherapy drugs for the treatment of lung cancer and mesothelioma.
The research experience, along with the amazing outcome of the collaboration between Taylor’s drug discovery team and Lilly, further spurred Young’s interest in chemical research.
After graduating from Princeton University in 1993, Young received two years of postdoctoral training in Professor Samuel Danishefsky’s group at Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital, where she was part of the team that successfully completed the total synthesis of taxol® in early 1995.
“It was a heroic effort of many people that really strengthened my passion for solving tough chemical problems,” Young recalls her experience at Danishefsky’s lab.
Today Danishefsky still vividly remembers Young’s contribution to his lab, how her courage, technical and leadership skills helped overcome the major obstacles associated with the taxol synthesis project. “She is absolutely outstanding,” says Danishefsky.
A stellar career path
After completing her postdoctoral training, Young wanted to do something different. While most of her colleagues were joining large pharmaceutical companies on the East coast, Young decided to go west and join the burgeoning biotech industry – another key decision Young believes has worked out in her favor. In 1995, Young landed her first biotech job at Celera Genomics (formerly Axys Pharmaceuticals), and started to make marks in the biotech industry.
At Celera, Young worked on the discovery of protease and kinase inhibitors, and explored their potential therapeutic applications in a variety of clinical indications. As the project team leader for the factor VIIa program, she and her team overcame many obstacles and successfully moved their products into clinical trials for both oncology and thrombotic indications.
Drawn by Genentech’s great reputation in the biotech industry, Young joined the company in 2006 as an associate director of medicinal chemistry. Since then, she has played a significant role in building and growing the company’s small molecule drug discovery unit. Under her leadership, her teams have discovered more than 17 clinical candidates.
With her noticeable achievements, Young’s career flourished and her responsibilities increased. As a vice president for discovery chemistry at Genentech, today Young oversees multiple drug discovery projects, and manages 110 internal chemists and many more external full-time contract employees.
Perseverance pays off
But it wasn’t all easy.
“Drug discovery and development is extremely challenging,” Young admits. “There are a lot of failures before you hit on success.” To succeed in the field, Young believes perseverance is a must.
At Genentech, Young is well known for her leadership on multiple projects, especially the one on small molecule kinase inhibitors, where her determination and perseverance paid off.
At the time, Young was the team lead of the project. Competition in the area was tense, and obstacles abound. Some colleagues understandably doubted the odds of success of the project. But Young believed in the project, and she refused to give up. For 8 years, she championed the project and tackled the challenges with her team. After much hard work, the team eventually solved the core problems and developed a promising product accordingly. The product is currently in clinical development, and has shown potential for medical as well as commercial successes.
Davies, Young’s undergraduate advisor, is not surprised to see Young’s success.
“I am not surprised to see her being a vice president of discovery chemistry at Genentech because even as an undergraduate she was driven and had great leadership potential,” Davies notes.
Focusing on what really matters
To succeed, Young believes one needs to have achievements. But to achieve, one must stay focused.
“Every day I aim to focus on what really matters,” Young says. And to her, what really matters is “our programs, our people and the patients we are aiming to serve.”
Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.