Strength in Numbers
The irrefutable logic of numbers has always fascinated Sarah Hymowitz. But while competing on her high school math team in Tennessee, she started to believe in a mathematical impossibility: that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sarah and her teammates quickly discovered that although no individual among them was a top contender, as a group they were unstoppable.
“We almost always won a team prize!” Sarah says with a satisfied grin. “It made me realize that having a group of smart people that can work together is actually way more successful than trying to win on your own. It’s something I hold to this day, and has translated seamlessly to my work at Genentech.”
As Senior Director and Principal Scientist in Protein Chemistry and Structural Biology, Sarah shares her energy and enthusiasm for teamwork with nearly 130 scientists who solve complex problems in drug discovery — a perfect example of scientific synergy.
A Moment Crystallized
Sarah’s passions in high school eventually led her to Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania where she received a degree in chemistry. There she became interested in the intersection between chemistry and biology, while also satisfying her wide-ranging curiosity with classes in physics and quantum mechanics.
It was on a visit to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), while checking out grad schools, that her future in science crystallized, both literally and figuratively.
“One of my formative experiences was when one of the graduate students at the time introduced me to electron density and to the fact that you could crystallize and visualize a protein in three dimensions,” she recalls with a wonderment that has hardly dimmed in 25 years. “I just couldn’t believe how it could be so beautiful and informative at the same time!”
For Sarah, the Interdisciplinary Biophysics graduate program at UCSF was perfect because she could use math and physics to study biological problems.
“I really fell in love with the ability to visualize your science using structural biology. I love the artistic nature of it, and how once you have the image of the three-dimensional structure, you can hang a lot of data on it.”
Growing Up With Genentech
After earning her Ph.D., her love of structural biology led Sarah to accept a post-doctoral fellowship in what was then called the Protein Engineering department at Genentech.
“I’m really grateful for the people that took a chance on me and nurtured different skill sets. Because of them I went from a post-doc to a junior scientist to running a project team.”
For people who know Sarah, it’s no surprise that it’s worked out so well for her at Genentech. Because just behind her easy charm lies an intense scientific tenacity that has made it hard for people not to notice her. For her part, Sarah has marveled at the power of a team to solve complex problems.
“What’s fun about Genentech is if you’re working on something, even if you’re a post-doc, there are always other people working on it, so you always feel part of a team. It also means you are constantly learning from incredibly smart and talented people on things you’re already interested in.”
In this collaborative environment, Sarah has been able to take her passion for protein structure in myriad directions.
“I’ve been able to use structural biology to touch the whole pipeline. I think it’s so much fun, and doing it at a place like Genentech that has such a rich and varied pipeline is special.” As Sarah puts it, “I’m exactly in the nexus between large molecules, small molecules and the discovery side.”
It hasn’t just been about the science, either. As she has risen to her position as Senior Director and Principal Scientist, she’s also built a family.
“When I initially interviewed for my post-doc here I was pregnant with my first child, and 17 years later I had my fourth. You could say that I’ve thoroughly tested maternity leave at Genentech,” Sarah says with a wry smile. “Each time my leave got a little bit longer, but it also made me miss the lab even more.”
It’s no surprise that Sarah’s passion for science and her staunch belief in the power of teamwork have made her an exceptional leader and professional in the world of drug discovery. But whether it’s solving trigonometry problems in a high school auditorium in Tennessee, or answering important questions about cancer biology in a laboratory in South San Francisco, it’s always been about strength in numbers.