An Explorer from the Start
Every scientist’s path has its twists and turns. For Merdad Parsey, the path to Genentech led through the jaws of a tiger shark.
Merdad’s wildlife encounter happened in college, when he took part in a two-week Caribbean expedition to study microbial communities in local shark populations.
“It was my job to put a towel over the sharks’ heads once we got them on the boat,” Merdad recalls. “It was to keep them calm while we collected samples to test in the lab.”
It just so happens that wasn’t his only responsibility. “The other part of my job was to take the hook out of their mouth before we released them. As a college student, I guess my fingers were the most expendable!”
The most memorable moment on the trip was when a tiger shark gave birth to pups as the scientists drew it towards the boat.
“The pups just came out. We luckily had a photographer there … it was one of the first times anyone had ever seen a tiger shark giving birth in the wild.”
Shark wrangling may seem a far cry from his role today as Senior Vice President, Early Clinical Development at Genentech. But along the way, a willingness to stick his hand in a tiger shark’s mouth eventually translated into another kind of quiet confidence — the mettle to take investigational molecules from the lab to the people who needed them. As Merdad passed from college through an M.D./Ph.D. program and into the biotech industry, he discovered a deep passion for helping bold new scientific ideas cross the threshold from lab to clinic.
"Merdad realized that being at the intersection of science and medicine provided the thrill of exploration and discovery he needed."
A growing passion
For Merdad, it’s easy to trace the childhood origins of his passion for science. Whether it was late nights spent watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos with his brother, or spending time helping at his father’s clinic, there was always something to keep science in the forefront.
“My dad was a family practice doctor, so I grew up around science and medicine. My brother and I both grew up working around our dad, and we just kind of fell in love with it.”
Throughout medical school, his Ph.D. and into his residency and fellowship, Merdad realized that being at the intersection of science and medicine provided the thrill of exploration and discovery he needed – without the distinct possibility of losing his fingers.
It was also another place to test his fearlessness. As a pulmonary and critical care fellow at the University of Colorado, Merdad was part of a clinical trial that was studying treatments for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a complication seen in people in intensive care units.
“We were implementing a totally new procedure to try and help patients generate more oxygen into their bloodstream by filling their lungs with a fluid. It was what I loved about being a researcher and a clinician. We were actually conducting early clinical trials and trying new medicines and therapies that had never been tried before in people.”
Trials by Fire
Working directly in a clinical trial stuck with Merdad, but something else dawned on him as well – maybe he could actually learn to design one. He knew the best opportunity to do this would be in industry. So after his fellowship he joined Merck, where Merdad’s dream came true very quickly — and more concretely than he’d never imagined.
“One day, my boss came in to my office and dropped two ten-inch-thick binders of the Merck Standard Operating Procedures on my desk. I was thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But I spent the next two weeks falling asleep reading those binders and learning what it takes to design a trial.”
There was something about knowing how to design the right experiment to help people in need that enthralled Merdad as he took on various roles on the East Coast. He fully immersed himself in all aspects of the clinical trial process, from working to get investigational medicines approved for initial use in humans to seeing them approved for the public by the Food and Drug Administration.
"It was what I loved about being a researcher and a clinician. We were actually conducting early clinical trials and trying new medicines and therapies that had never been tried before in people."
It was after a particularly brutal winter in Boston that Merdad came to California and joined Genentech as a Senior Group Medical Director in 2006, where he worked primarily in the pulmonary group.
“I’d always wanted to work at Genentech and had even faxed my resume here earlier in my career – although I didn’t get the job then. When I was eventually hired here … I remember going home to my wife saying, ‘I’m the dumbest guy in the room,’ and I love that. It’s what compelled me to come here. You learn so much from the people around you.”
For four years Merdad worked at Genentech developing and implementing clinical trials. But soon, the “change junkie” in him needed to explore again. In 2010 he was offered the opportunity to become the CEO of the biotechnology startup 3-V Biosciences. “It was something I had never really pursued, but I had to give it a shot because no matter what, I’d learn something.”
There and Back Again
Life as a CEO proved its own trial by fire, but Merdad drew many valuable lessons from his experience. He gained a better understanding of the biotechnology industry and the non-clinical aspects of the business: facilities, legal and finance challenges and especially, the world of venture capital funding.
“As a CEO you’re worried about things like payroll and about hiring great people who have expertise in areas that you have none. I learned a lot about leadership and the mechanics of running a company and how to manage priorities in different ways.”
But after five years as a CEO Merdad began to ponder his own priorities. He realized that his passion for translational medicine was what had led him to the biotechnology industry. In 2015, he rejoined Genentech. As he describes it, much of his desire to return stemmed from his need for exploration and discovery.
“The excitement of taking part in the great science that people do here is what brought me back. I’m just constantly amazed by the breadth of what we do here in a week or in a day. You go from an oncology program to an ALS program to a metabolism program – it’s just mind-boggling.”
These days the future of drug development is also on Merdad’s mind. “There’s a revolution going on in drug discovery and development, and we are privileged to be at a place that is at the forefront of both of those areas; a place that is actively working on perpetual evolution and iterative learning. What else could you ask for?”
It seems finally that Merdad Parsey, the “change junkie,” may have found all of the variety he craves in one place.