Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann: Bringing Her ‘A-Game’

reprinted from Issue 19, Fall 2014 of Frontiers of Medicine (PDF)

"These jobs can be overwhelming, and I learned the value of having a buddy and teaming up.”
  – Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann

Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, jokes that her residency application to UCSF felt like a long shot. A 1982 graduate of University of Nevada, Reno’s fledgling medical school, she says it was a "very positive surprise” to be accepted to UCSF.

On the first day of residency, another state school alumnus – Nicholas Hellmann, MD, who had attended the University of Kentucky – caught her attention. "We looked at each other and thought, ‘I have a kindred spirit there’ – and we’ve been kindred spirits ever since,” she says about Hellmann, who became her husband and an infectious disease expert.

As a resident, she looked up to leaders such as then-Chair of the Department of Medicine, Lloyd "Holly” Smith, Jr., MD. "He could tease you and yet make you feel loved, while setting an atmosphere where you knew you had to bring out your ‘A-game,’” recalls Desmond-Hellmann. "For someone like me from a small school who had never seen such a truly extraordinary assembly of talent, I found it incredibly inspiring.”

"I have been a ‘Sue Aficionado’ since she and Nick began as trainees,” says Smith. "She has a broad knowledge of medicine, public health and the medical sciences, consummate communication skills, diplomacy, and a long and authentic interest in global health. Her experiences and interests are remarkably congruent with the challenges that lie ahead.”

After residency, Desmond-Hellmann and Carlin Long, MD – now chief of cardiology at Denver Health Medical Center – served as co-chief residents at Moffitt Hospital. "So many things about working with Carlin were great – his sense of humor, his intellect,” she says. "These jobs can be overwhelming, and I learned the value of having a buddy and teaming up.”

Desmond-Hellmann completed her oncology fellowship at UCSF and joined the faculty, caring for AIDS patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma and lymphoma. She and her husband then spent two years as visiting faculty members at Makerere University and the Uganda Cancer Institute, studying heterosexual transmission of HIV. One memorable experience was visiting a rural hospital. "Just because we had a little cooler box with chemotherapy, people would literally circle the hospital, waiting,” she says. "I developed an incredible humility about the challenges, and the importance of collaboration with people in low-resource settings.”

Leading through Partnerships

After returning from Uganda and a brief stint in private practice, Desmond-Hellmann went to work at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where she joined and eventually led the team developing the cancer drug Taxol. She was recruited to Genentech, eventually becoming president of product development and overseeing the creation of cancer therapeutics, including Herceptin and Avastin.

In 2009, she became the ninth chancellor of UCSF. "I think one of the most important things a chancellor does is put the right people in the right jobs,” says Desmond-Hellmann, who considers building her leadership team and helping to recruit top talent as her greatest accomplishments. She is also proud of establishing the UCSF Discovery Fellows Program, the largest endowed program for PhD students in the UC system, and increasing engagement with the high tech, biotech and private sector communities.

In May, she became CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made grants totaling more than $30 billion in support of its mission to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. "I’m excited about the amazing and daunting opportunity to bring more funds than have ever been brought before, philanthropically, to engage in solving inequities across the world,” she says. "Nobody does that by yourself – it’s all about collaboration, partnership and teamwork. You can’t accomplish things without resources, but it isn’t only about money – it’s about clarity and intent to make an impact.... If my skills can help in this effort, along with partners of the Gates Foundation across the globe, I will be thrilled.”

Her advice to current residents: every year, learn something new. "When I was a second-year fellow, my mentor left UCSF,” she says. "My backup strategy was to get a master’s in public health from UC Berkeley, focusing on epidemiology and biostatistics. I would not let a year go by with me taking it easy.”

Desmond-Hellmann maintains a fast pace outside of work, and is an avid runner and bicyclist. She and her husband are looking forward to outdoor adventures in the Pacific Northwest.

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