“The pleasure of my life”

5 questions for Melissa Starovasnik
Laurel Oldach
Feb. 19, 2021

With over 70 papers and patent filings to her name, Genentech senior scientific advisor Melissa Starovasnik has worked on an enormous number of drug discovery projects. For 10 years, Starovasnik led research departments in structural biology and protein sciences. She recently shared insights with ASBMB Today about what she's learned since arriving at Genentech as a postdoc in 1993. This interview has been condensed and edited.


Name: Melissa Starovasnik

Current position: Senior scientific advisor, Genentech

Career path: Ph.D., biochemistry, University of Washington, 1992

  • Postdoctoral research: protein NMR spectroscopy, Genentech

Favorite molecule or protein: BLyS Receptor 3 aka BAFF-R

For more advice, check out Starovasnik's ASBMB Today article on job hunting in industry.

How did you get involved in leading research operations?

In 2008, I had the opportunity to head research operations at Genentech while still pursuing research and leading our structural biology department. In my role as vice president, research operations, I was essentially responsible for everything that wasn't the science: overseeing our annual budget, headcount, salaries, promotions, intern program and hiring while ensuring internal equity and consistent practices, and adhering to budgetary constraints. I also interacted with the rest of our company, such as human resources, finance, IT, and procurement and ensured they partnered with our research organization in a way that was beneficial for our science — I made sure they understood our needs and that we might look different, for example, than the commercial organization. I jumped in where I saw tasks nobody else was dealing with that were getting in the way of people having the freedom to focus on their science.

I have always found that while the science I can do by myself is fun, what's really exciting is the science that a group of people can do together. Clearing the path for researchers to do their science in a way that wasn't encumbered by unnecessary distractions or other issues while continuing to lead science within my own area was very satisfying.

After directing research operations, you became vice president of protein sciences; what was that job like?

The pleasure of my life has been leading protein sciences and our large-molecule drug discovery organization at Genentech while participating in our research review committee and research leadership team.

I spent a lot of time guiding and reviewing protein/antibody therapeutic discovery projects, figuring out how to resource them, ensuring that the right people with the right skills were available and that the technologies we employed were at the cutting edge. That meant developing a leadership team, sitting in meetings, listening to presentations, talking about strategy, and weighing in on how to move forward on our projects, technologies and processes.

Most important, though, is the people part: mentoring and developing scientists, team leaders and department heads both one-on-one and in teams. And then there are all the surprises that come into your day that require your immediate attention. When you're a leader and decision-maker, you need to be available to ensure your people have the information they need and are empowered to move forward with their work.

It seems decision-makers in pharma often have to move forward with less data than you'd like to have. How do you deal?

That's real life, I'm sad to say; we rarely have the data we wish we could have to make these decisions. That's true in science and it's true in drug discovery. You have to decide what you are going to work on and what you are going to kill, and why.

My competence in that area grew with experience, but there was an expectation that I didn't need to make decisions entirely by myself; five to ten other folks with other expertise would weigh in on tough portfolio decisions. It's about drawing not only on your own experience but on talented colleagues who can help you overcome challenges to provide the best outcomes.

Is there a standout project you're especially proud to have worked on?

Absolutely. It was an antibody project against a receptor called BR3 (or BAFF-R), which is important in B cell survival and is implicated in autoimmune diseases and hematological malignancies. Leading the drug discovery team to characterize and select the candidate in research and then the early development team responsible for taking the molecule into clinical development challenged me the most. It was just exhilarating: a ton of work, a ton of learning and really great teamwork.

Not everything is going to work in drug discovery and development. My project ended up not moving forward, but I'm proud of the decisions we made. As I say, you not only have to decide which projects to move forward — but also which ones to stop. And stopping projects, frankly, is just as important (or more), because ultimately, you're going to stop more projects than will progress.

Your advice for people who want to lead drug discovery someday?

What is absolutely critical is that you work as a scientist first. Don't expect you're going to lead a big group right away; you've got to learn, gain experience and credibility. For me, there were many distinct opportunities and experiences that taught me a lot about drug discovery, project teams and effective people leadership. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to lead a whole department if I didn't have my own hands-on experience, which is really necessary to gain trust and ensure that when people come to you, you have the expertise to truly be helpful.

You don't need to know everything at the beginning of your career. You just need to be doing and learning things along the way that help you grow and move closer to what you think you want to do next. Hopefully, you're also having fun and making a meaningful contribution to science. If you're doing those four things, then I think you're in good shape and your career will continue to evolve.

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Laurel Oldach

Laurel Oldach is a former science writer for the ASBMB.

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