Dreams from Mumbai
Sara Kenkare-Mitra still remembers the sound of her grandfather’s voice on a hot and humid night in bustling Mumbai, India. She was only 4 years old and tucked in bed, but sleep was a distant thought. Her grandfather was in the midst of a bedtime story — not a fable or fantasy, but a tale of his real-life adventures as a doctor.
As one the first local physicians in his state to be trained in Western medicine, her grandfather had seen it all. He was a community doctor who, as Sara puts it, “did very little for his own pockets.” He believed in working for the masses, and though he had retired by the time Sara was a child, he had one more project to complete.
Sara believes that with those bedtime stories, her grandfather meant to instill in her a dream that would last far beyond that night in Mumbai. It was as though he sensed that she would follow his footsteps into a career dedicated to helping and healing others.
His intuition was spot on.
A (Mostly) Singular Focus
As unbelievable as it may seem, from the moment Sara heard her grandfather’s first story her focus on entering the medical profession was laser sharp.
“That was my fantasy, so I rarely thought of anything else. It’s like kids who say they want to become a pilot when they grow up. If you asked me, I would just say that I want to treat patients. It’s what I would talk about all the time,” Sara says.
Traditional Indian educational values along with extremely supportive parents solidified Sara’s drive. Her only moments of reconsideration were stirred by the other passion in her life – dancing. She was particularly drawn to a traditional Indian dance form known as Kathak.
As a high school student and as a college student in pharmacy school, her days were filled with studying and dance. Sara even had to make a deal with her parents that she would continue dance lessons only so long as she was a top student in her class. Though for Sara, Kathak and her pursuit of science were far more compatible than they appeared to her parents.
“It’s a very technical dance, but also requires creativity – it’s like ballet and in many ways, how you have to approach science. I loved and still love to create dances, but there are rules. I use that same creativity to approach scientific problems.”
Though Sara’s passion led her to pursue a career in science, Kathak remains a huge part of her life today. She still loves choreographing dances for her daughter.
The Human Element
Following college in Mumbai, Sara was even more driven to pursue a career in medicine. After some intense negotiations with her parents, she earned a scholarship and made the journey half-way across the world to Austin, Texas, to begin her graduate work in pharmacology. She eventually moved to San Francisco, where she completed her Ph.D. in biopharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
Sara was getting closer to fulfilling her fantasy of healing others, but there was still a missing component.
“I still needed that experience to see my work help people, and that finally came true when I was accepted into a clinical pharmacology fellowship at UCSF.”
In a program generally reserved for medical doctors, Sara was the only Ph.D. working to design clinical trials and analyze clinical data, she was finally able to think beyond reactions in test tubes or cells. It was a transformative experience, and what eventually led her to Genentech. Sara also recalls that at this same time, it caught her attention that Genentech had just introduced a ground-breaking medicine to help treat certain types of breast cancer.
“It’s the reason I’m here today. The word ‘medicine’ is important to me. I am part of this organization because it is a research and development organization that focuses on science and also benefit to patients. I need to see programs move through discovery and development and help patients.”
Fulfilling a Dream
Sara has been at Genentech for the last 18 years. Today, as Senior Vice President of Development Sciences, she oversees the transition of molecules from research to the clinic and their continued translation into drugs through clinical development. She and her team have played key roles in the approval of 10 medicines spanning a wide range of diseases from asthma to bladder cancer and filed over 60 Investigational new drugs (INDs) in the U.S. and around the world.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years, says Sara, is Genentech’s focus on science and getting medicines to the people who need them the most.
“I was here when we were just a small biotech company, so I’ve been in the trenches helping to solve difficult pharmacological questions about new molecules and working on regulatory filings. Today my job overseeing Development Sciences is a bit different. But it’s truly what I’ve dreamed of since I was 4 years old.”