Shiva Malek emigrated to the U.S. by way of Disneyland. Her family was visiting the California theme park from Iran in 1979 when revolution broke out back home.
While her father returned to Iran, her mother rented an apartment for Shiva and her two sisters near a relative’s home in Logan, Utah. But as summer ended, the revolution did not. Refusing to let her daughters’ education suffer, Shiva’s mom enrolled them in a local school.
“I remember on my first day of second grade, I didn’t even know how to spell my name,” says Shiva. “We thought we would be able to go back home, but the revolution lasted for a long time. It was a tough time as an Iranian immigrant in Utah. We were there during the hostage crisis and there was a lot of animosity towards Iranians at the time.”
But the experience made Shiva stronger, and after five years her family — now including her father — moved to California to start a new life. Shiva went to college at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where she thought she would prepare for a medical career.
“Growing up in an immigrant family, your career options are basically being a doctor or an engineer,” says Shiva. “At first I thought I was going to practice medicine, but I fell in love with science and never looked back.”
A year into college, she found herself pursuing a degree in biochemistry.
Soap and Water
Shiva’s scientific career started as a dishwasher.
“During my freshman year at UCLA, I worked for Dr. Juli Feigon. When we first met, I told her that I wanted to do research, but she said, ‘What we really need in the lab right now is a dishwasher.’ So I was literally washing dishes. But I also immersed myself in a rich scientific environment. The lab studied DNA complexes, and I loved visualizing the science – seeing the structures and relating it to how different proteins physically interacted with one another. That’s when I knew that science was what I wanted to do.”
Shiva’s curiosity and passion for research quickly earned her a spot at the lab bench. With Dr. Feigon’s guidance she thrived, and by graduation had her name on two publications, one in the prestigious journal Science. Looking back, Shiva recalls that having a strong female mentor was invaluable for her career growth.
“I watched her fight for recognition and tenure. It was really inspiring for me to see her succeed in a career that is dominated by men. It allowed me to consider a similar role for myself.”
After college, Shiva completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and then took a job as a scientist at a San Diego-based biotechnology company where she developed tools for scientists to understand functions of proteins in research experiments.
“I was thrilled to apply the knowledge from my Ph.D. to the study of proteins in living cells,” Shiva explains. “A lot of the projects I worked on there had a disease component, which was new and exciting to me at the time.”
After three years, Shiva and her husband Tyler moved to the Bay Area to be near family. At the same time, Shiva moved closer to helping patients, taking a job at an oncology-focused biotechnology company where she got her first taste of drug discovery.
“I became a project team leader and took a cancer program from the initial idea all the way to developing a candidate molecule. Coming from a basic research background, the learning curve was steep, and I had to learn a lot of new things very quickly. But having the experience of developing new medicines and translating them into the clinic was exciting and transformative for my career.”
A Chance to Build
Shiva was happy with her job, and wasn’t planning to leave until she got a phone call from Genentech’s Cristina Lewis, Director of Biochemical Pharmacology at the time. After an interview, Lewis offered her a scientist position to develop small-molecule inhibitors that target cancer signaling pathways.
“It was my dream job, but I turned it down initially. At the time, I was really invested in the program at my company and thought it had a big future.”
Cris told Shiva to think about her decision over the weekend, which allowed her to reach out to one of her former mentors.
“I told him about my predicament, and he gave me some of the best advice that I’ve ever received. He asked me whether Genentech would give me the chance to build something important. When I said yes, he told me, ‘Don’t ever underestimate that kind of opportunity. That’s where you learn the most.’ ”
The conversation lit a spark in Shiva’s mind. She realized that the opportunity to help build an entirely new program focused on small-molecule medicines was a rare opportunity that didn’t come often in the biotech industry. She accepted the offer the next day.
As one of the first scientists hired on Genentech’s small-molecule discovery team in 2006, Shiva helped build the division from the ground up and worked with talented scientists like Mike Varney and Wendy Young.
Shiva developed small-molecule inhibitors to target genetically mutated protein kinase signaling pathways involved in cancer cell growth. She worked on multiple kinase inhibitor programs while at Genentech, but one particular project stands out in her mind because of its unexpected results.
“Instead of turning off cancer signaling pathways, we found that BRAF kinase inhibitors actually activated the pathway in RAS mutant tumors and promoted tumor growth. This was in contrast to their ability to block tumor growth in BRAF-V600E melanoma tumors. It was an important discovery for patients and for science. It made us rethink how we develop kinase inhibitors, and it made me realize that my passion really is in understanding the complex mechanisms of biology.”
Shiva is now applying her passion for understanding biological mechanisms to early discovery-stage research. In 2016, she became the director and principal scientist of Discovery Oncology at Genentech, and in 2019 was promoted to executive director and head of Discovery Oncology. In this role, she works closely with different teams both at Genentech and other companies to identify and validate therapeutic targets for various types of cancer.
“The experience of working across the entire Genentech organization, combined with our outside collaborators, has been phenomenal. It was a really great learning experience for me. I’m not sure I could have done this anywhere else in the world.”
From Mentee to Mentor
Now, Shiva finds herself on the other side of the table. Reflecting on her advancement, Shiva says she has relied on support every step of the way from strong scientific mentors, especially women.
“At Genentech I am surrounded by a fantastic community of female peers and leaders that are supportive and actively engaged in mentorship. In many ways, this community has been key to helping me evolve as a scientist and leader.”
Shiva recalls how her former manager Cris challenged and encouraged her when she first joined the small molecule group and today, in her role as a director, she values the opportunity to give back and help shape the next generation of talented women scientists. She currently mentors post-doctoral fellows at Genentech and says it’s one of the most enriching experiences she’s ever had in her career.
“Biology is complex. With discovery research, there are always more experiments you can do and it’s hard to know which direction to take. It’s really fulfilling to help younger scientists find clarity in answering these challenging questions.”