stirring the pot. . .

by mulberryshoots

cream of tomato soup

Although I sometimes think of myself as being quiet and solitary, (“a taoist hermit”), in my professional working life, I was anything but. Although I tried very hard each time I was the “newest kid on the block,” to keep my mouth shut and not challenge anybody, it was hard for me to do any of these things longer than for the first week or two. It’s actually amazing that I had a professional career at all, all things considered.

I was a late starter getting into the workforce because my first husband didn’t want me to work (“life is long”). When my kids were in high school, I talked my way into a project management job at one of the two premier biotechnology start-up companies in the U.S. at the time. In those days, cloning was an art, carried out by molecular biologists who were treated and paid like rock stars. Nowadays, there are machines that clone while people are on their coffee break. Before I was hired, I was asked to interview with the “Senior Scientists” of the start-up company. They were very nice and very distracted by this waste of their time. In other ways, they behaved like Knights of the Round Table, coming to work at 2 a.m. and leaving whenever, or vice-versa. They purposely didn’t want anyone with a Ph.D. in science to be a project manager, which is why they were interviewing me, a liberal arts history and music major. What they wanted, it seemed, was to hire a nice “nanny” to find their notes and to run meetings that they didn’t want to attend.

Long story short, I was hired and in two years was promoted over a young Harvard MBA to Director of Project Management. I hired and trained young MBAs from Wharton and other business schools because that’s what senior management said they wanted (even though I wasn’t one.) There were four divisions in the company at the time: pharmaceuticals, agriculture, diagnostics and biocatalysis. The project managers covered projects in all four groups; there were over 25 projects with global business partners in the pharmaceutical division alone. I also managed my own projects, the most important one being recombinant Erythropoietin (EPO). Simply put, it is a glycoprotein that stimulates production of erythrocytes (red blood cells).

I remember one company-wide meeting when the CEO said, “Our number one priority is EPO; our number two priority is EPO and our number three priority is EPO.” It was a crazy time. Once the VP of manufacturing and I flew to Frankfurt for an emergency meeting and met our business partners in the airport lounge after 8 hours in the air. We then turned around and flew back a day later without leaving the airport! When I boarded the American Airlines plane the crew recognized me from the flight two days earlier. It was right before Christmas and everyone was in a festive mood. The stewardess put me in First Class and served glasses of champagne on a tray with red roses. Then, I was offered (I’ll never forget this) an unopened jar of Sevruga cavier the size of a softball–just for me. There were perks that went with all the pressure and this one beat them all.

Back to the grind, I led a global development team with business partners who succeeded under great duress to obtain EPO regulatory approval in Germany and Japan. Amgen won the U.S. patent rights over the company I worked for and built its company from its early success with EPO. During the patent litigation phase, I travelled to New York for depositions and testified on behalf of my company’s claims. Today, you might recognize EPO under its marketed name,”Procrit.” Athletes are accused of using it to stimulate performance. To this day, it is still the single most successful product ever developed by recombinant technology, generating over a billion dollars of revenue a year.

Wow, you might say. . .how did you survive that? Well, I read huge textbooks about Molecular Biology and Protein Chemistry without understanding or at least retaining much of what I read. The first year, I walked around the garden and cried a lot on weekends. Understanding a research scientist’s mentality, having grown up with my father (“my father, myself”) gave me a leg up towards coaxing them to do what management needed them to do. It was a privilege to be on this ride in the early years of biotechnology. The work was exhilarating and very, very stressful. I virtually disappeared from my family. I told my first husband that from then on, he would have to go to all the school meetings for the kids and to carry on at home as though I had left the planet. Which is also how it felt sometimes.

Anyway, that’s how I started working. They thought they had hired someone they could ignore. I managed to stir the pot enough to get things done. It was a lot of fun working with such intelligent people for such a long time. After the bloom of biotech faded, it got a lot harder to raise money, it was a lot more stressful and a lot less fun. But I had a good run. I lucked out. I worked very hard. And I’m glad that a product like EPO made it across the finish line.