20: Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann and her view of the future of health, public health, happiness and wellbeing

Throughout her 30+ year career, Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann has been dedicated to improving the human condition with her knowledge and determination. 

“The most important two characteristics of anything I sign up for professionally is that somehow I believe there’s a connection to improving the human condition,” says Desmond-Hellmann. “I keep living my Hippocratic oath, no matter how old I am. And the second is that somehow I have some unique experience or qualifications that allow me to add value.”

The influence of kindness

At a young age, she was influenced by the kindness and dedication of her family doctor and her father, who was a pharmacist.

“From a very early age, I was completely fascinated by what (my father) did. And, he was very good friends with our family doctor, so I could connect my dad’s job and what he did with what Dr. Smirnoff did. If we were sick, my mom would bring us there and we would get better. There was that whole sense of purpose,” says Desmond-Hellmann. “He just really cared. He lived a very long life and at a very old age, he continued to go visit some of his former patients in nursing homes, just to say, hello and to check in on them. He was one of the kindest, most caring physicians I’ve ever met then. He had a very big influence on how I thought I should show up.”

Finding a sense of purpose

It’s that sense of purpose that has driven Desmond-Hellmann throughout her career. When she started medical school, she envisioned becoming an orthopaedic surgeon, but in third year, after working with her attending physician, Dr. Steven Hall, she knew that her future was in oncology.

“When I worked with Dr. Hall, he was just one of the most caring, intelligent, thoughtful people I’ve ever worked with. He is definitely a big reason why ultimately I decided to become an oncologist.”

While working as an oncologist, Desmond-Hellmann experienced the challenges of not having the right tools to treat certain patients. She explains the impact of treating patients who had cancer and AIDS or treating breast cancer patients with bone marrow transplants and watching them experience the adverse side effects but with little success. 

Desmond-Hellmann would eventually go on to become associate director of clinical cancer research at Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute and then Chief Medical Officer and chief of product development at Genentech. At Genentech, she led the division that developed the first gene-targeted cancer therapies.

Looking toward the future of health and science

Her illustrious career has focused on finding ways to improve life for millions of people. When she left her position as the CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in February 2020, Melinda Gates spoke of the contributions Desmond-Hellmann had made to the organization. 

“Sue brought an incredible set of attributes to the foundation: scientific expertise, tested leadership skills, a passion for building a strong internal culture, and, above all, a dedication to the mission of making the world a healthier, more equal place,” said Melinda Gates. “Whether we were sitting in a conference room in Seattle or spending time with farmers in southern Africa, I was always grateful for her perspective and her partnership. Our foundation is better for the fact that Sue walked through its doors five years ago.” 

The decision to leave the foundation has allowed Desmond-Hellmann to focus on working with non-profit organizations that are looking at the future of science in the US and the communication surrounding it. 

“I’m working in a couple of different not-for-profit groups that are looking at the future of science and the importance of science, and whether or not people trust science, which is extremely important. I’m very concerned about the communication of science, and the believability of science to Americans today.” 

Desmond-Hellmann continues to make an ongoing contribution to the foundation by staying on as a Senior Advisor. She is also a current board member of Pfizer. 

Tune in to the 40-minute podcast, to learn more about Desmond-Hallmann’s thoughts on

  • The importance of having a diverse and strong team that you can rely on 
  • Wanting to change the communication around science to regain credibility 
  • Educating people on public health and climate change 
  • How you can expose your children to science from an early stage 

Be sure to follow Sue Desmond-Hellmann on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and connect with her on LinkedIn. Learn more about her work with Pfizer here

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