The accomplishments of parents and grandparents have always planted seeds of inspiration in the minds of younger generations. For Rhona O’Leary, stories of her grandfather’s work as a pharmacist set her on the path to becoming a scientist.
“My grandfather died when my mother was about 10, so I never met him,” says Rhona. But my mother would tell us stories of his work. People would come into the pharmacy with their ailments, and my grandfather would mix up medicine for them. She had kept the old-fashioned bottles he’d used in his practice, and I still remember admiring them.”
Those old blue and brown medicine bottles symbolized what her grandfather had meant to the small Irish town he served. It was a message that resonated with Rhona, who was determined to make a similar contribution when she grew up.
Rhona grew up in Killarney, Ireland, a tourist town in County Kerry that sits amid mountains, lakes, rivers and ancient forests. It was in this scenic spot on the shores of Lough Leane — Irish for “lake of learning” — that she fell in love with science.
“Once I started learning about science in school, I realized that I was really, really interested in all aspects of it. I remember science homework was my favorite, so I would do it first. But then I would inevitably run out of time for everything else.”
During the early 1980s in Ireland, high-level science classes weren’t always offered to girls at the high school level. But as fate would have it, that option became available at Rhona’s school just as she was choosing a course of study.
“I was over the moon. I was going to be in that first group of girls to take all the science subjects at the higher levels (equivalent to AP classes in the U.S.). My parents were very skeptical, thinking that the workload was going to be too much, but I was very determined to take them all.”
Her high school studies led to the entrance exam for pharmacy school. One of the toughest programs to get into, the program offered only 40 positions annually in all of Ireland. Rhona missed being admitted by one point.
Making Her Own Luck
Deeply disappointed at first, Rhona pursued studies in biotechnology at Dublin City University. In no time, her backup plan became a consuming passion.
“Once I was there, I realized that I actually had more of an inclination for engineering than chemistry. I loved the stainless steel equipment, and the concept of making medicines at large scales.”
During the four-year undergraduate program, Rhona studied immunology, molecular biology, genetics, chemical engineering and several business classes. Her fondest memories, however, are of the pilot plant where she and her classmates could test everything they had learned using large scale machinery.
Rhona loved the experience so much that she decided to continue studying at Dublin City University for her Ph.D. Once again, passion and opportunity converged.
“In 1993 I was awarded a student scholarship to go to a scientific meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico to work as the slide projectionist. While I was there, I became exposed to a lot of presenters from the biotech industry, including Genentech.”
About to finish her Ph.D., Rhona decided to send her CV to many of the people she’d met at the conference. One of them, Mary Sliwkowski, was a Senior Scientist in the Cell Culture group at Genentech. Mary passed Rhona’s name to another colleague in Process Development, the group charged with developing the biochemical techniques to make medicines, where there happened to be an opening for a postdoc.
“So I came out and interviewed, and was offered the position in 1994.”
The Big Time
When Rhona first arrived in South San Francisco, what struck her most was the scale of the operation.
“There were maybe 2,500 people here, which at the time seemed big. I remember seeing the size of some of the purification machinery, and the finesse with which it was run, and it totally blew my mind.”
Rhona soon recognized that she was working at a place that was redefining the drug development process. Her first role was in Recovery Sciences, which developed methods to purify increasingly larger quantities of the investigational therapies as they progressed in clinical trials.
“I realized quickly the impact of our work. Making a mistake wasn’t the same as in grad school anymore. Mistakes impacted patients. It recalibrated the way I thought and worked.”
Learning on the Job
Rhona continued within the Process Technical Development organization for 10 years following her postdoc, moving up the ranks from Scientist to Director. One big milestone came the first time that she was charged with having direct discussions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the manufacturing process of an investigational medicine.
“It made me realize that the organization is putting a lot of trust on me as a scientist, leader, and as an individual, to represent them to groups like the FDA.”
Rhona discovered that she had skills in leading teams of people, and in 2008, after building a team of 45 scientists in the early-stage purification group, she decided to take on a new position as a Project Team Leader (PTL). It was one of her steepest learning curves, to be sure.
“I didn’t know clinical development, I didn’t know about the commercial side. I didn’t understand clinical operations. I didn’t know anything about regulatory from a clinical perspective. I really came with the lens of manufacturing.”
But it didn’t faze her. Rhona leaned on colleagues when she needed and absorbed everything she encountered. Within a few years, she had led teams developing molecules and strategies across therapeutic areas from asthma to cardiovascular disease.
A Dream Redefined
In 2011, Rhona expanded her leadership role even further when she became Senior Director and eventually Vice President of Genentech Research and Early Development (gRED) Business Operations. In many ways, this position had an even steeper learning curve.
“It was such a heterogeneous set of responsibilities. On a single day I would go from having a discussion about our IT budget, to site planning, to a meeting about our Environmental Health and Safety policies. Then I might talk about the business planning cycle, and I might end the day talking to a PTL about what the strategy should be for rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.”
The role challenged Rhona to think even more strategically, and gave her a very broad perspective on Genentech. It was also an ideal proving ground for her next position. In March 2018, Rhona became Global Head of Portfolio and Product Development Strategy.
“The reason I’m excited about it is, I’ve made investigational medicines in the very early stages of clinical development, but all the roles that I’ve had so far have been somewhat removed from the patient. The late-stage portfolio is filled with molecules that are poised to have immediate impact for patients.”
Thirty years after Rhona set aside her goal of following her grandfather into a career as a pharmacist that dream has come true in a way that she never could have imagined as a child, pondering his colorful medicine bottles and wondering about his world.
“I am sure that he would be amazed at how we have advanced in our knowledge and understanding of diseases. Many of the serious ailments he treated in his community are treated as minor illnesses today. He died in his 50s of lung cancer, something that could have potentially been treated with immunotherapy agents.”
In her role at Genentech, Rhona has the rare opportunity to give people around the globe the same gift of wellness that her grandfather once bestowed on his friends and neighbors in a small Irish town — and to help transform some of her own era’s most serious ailments into relics of the past.