The Molecule Maker

Wendy Young* grew up in South Salem, NY, a township north of New York City. It was a rural community, where horses walked the unpaved roads in front of Wendy’s childhood home. She spent her summers catching frogs and tadpoles in the pond out front. It was idyllic in many ways, but not completely carefree.

“One of the things that shaped my whole being is that I grew up in a relatively wealthy area, where many kids had it easy, but my parents wanted us to learn the value of money,” says Wendy. “I did a lot of chores and was expected to earn my own money to contribute to buying clothes and other things, and it solidified this great work ethic in me.”

The practical necessity to work hard quickly became part of Wendy’s identity. She didn’t view it as a burden or something to escape. It was a vehicle to reach her full potential.

Captivated by Chemistry

When Wendy was 15 years old, she started working at a nursing home called Holly House.

“Working in a nursing home at such a young age, was an amazing experience,” says Wendy. “I helped the residents take their medicine and helped bathe them. I made such important relationships with all of the people there, and it gave me an early passion for helping others.”

Wendy worked long hours there during high school and when she returned home from breaks during college at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was a defining experience that precipitated two important career decisions: Wendy wanted to directly impact people’s health and she wanted to do that by making medicine. But that picture wasn’t completely clear to her until her sophomore year at Wake Forest.

Wendy had been accepted and won a music scholarship to play the flute. But she realized quite quickly that her passion and desire to pursue music just weren’t there.

“So I switched to pre-med and took organic chemistry my sophomore year. That’s where I found my calling—doing the homework was fun, like doing puzzles.”

Even more than the prospect of being a doctor, it was chemistry that captivated her. She’d finally found the right substrate for her work ethic. She applied for a chemistry scholarship and was one of the first awardees in a new five year BA/MS program. Throughout her undergraduate and graduate career she worked in the lab and decided in her last year, to apply to Princeton University, where she was accepted into the PhD program for chemistry.

Total Thrill

Wendy truly got down to the business of making medicine at Princeton and during her post-doc at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. For a chemist, this means building complex molecules, one reaction at a time, in a process known as an organic synthesis. During her PhD, she worked with a team of Princeton and Eli Lilly chemists to design anti-cancer drugs. Years later, this team’s work became an important treatment for mesothelioma. During her post-doc, she joined a team of chemists in her lab in an enormous undertaking — the total synthesis of a chemotherapy medicine, which today is a cornerstone of cancer treatment.

“Total syntheses are why we’re chemists. You’re building a molecule from scratch based on a blueprint that Mother Nature gave you or one you designed yourself. It was a big deal, and was another milestone that made me realize this is just so cool, the thrill you get when you accomplish a total synthesis.”

After the thrill of contributing to what would eventually become an approved medicine in her academic career, Wendy was ready to make it her profession. She always believed she’d stay on the East Coast to work in the pharmaceutical industry, but that plan turned out to have a big flaw — her future husband.

“I met a guy,” Wendy says with a laugh. “I knew we were going to be together and he got a job at Stanford, so I took a huge leap of faith and I dropped all the offers I had on the East Coast and looked at biotech on the West Coast. The Bay Area was one of the places where we could both pursue our careers, and it’s worked out great for us.”


Wendy started her career in the Bay Area, moving up the ranks from scientist to senior director over 12 years and two start-up companies, Celera Genomics (formerly Axys Pharmaceuticals) and Scios, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson Co. During this time she worked on a number of molecules that made their way into the clinic. But that all changed in 2006.

“I was chugging along and one day at work we had a staff meeting — we were told our site would be closing. So I called up Mike Varney and I said, ‘Mike, I don’t know if you remember me, but I hosted you at your seminar at Princeton many years ago and I’d really like to work at Genentech.’”

Mike did indeed remember Wendy, and was thrilled to have her interview for a position. As Wendy says, “the rest was history and I’ve never looked back.” She joined Genentech in 2006 as an Associate Director in what was then the Medicinal Chemistry Department.

Persistence Pays

At first, her experience at Genentech wasn’t so different from the professional life she already knew. “The small molecule discovery group at Genentech was really just a start-up. It was a ton of work, in the best possible way, and a great opportunity to help establish a large-scale small molecule program,” says Wendy. “The camaraderie with my colleagues was fantastic.”

But not everything went smoothly at the beginning – there were highs and lows along the way. One project encapsulated both. In 2006, Wendy began a discovery project to develop molecules that inhibit Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK), a protein involved in B-cell development. The biology of the target was strong; there was evidence that shutting down BTK had the potential to treat autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

For 7 years, Wendy led the BTK research team. The project accomplished incredible feats of chemistry by using new approaches to create small molecules. It was also marred by a series of preclinical failures that threatened to derail the project. Wendy and her team’s hard work and persistence eventually led to the discovery of an investigational BTK inhibitor that is currently in clinical trials for a variety of autoimmune diseases.

“I’m so proud of that team and project and what we overcame. There were so many moments that we could have given up, but we always kept going. It’s a real testament to the trust Genentech has in its scientists and in following the science when we believe that a molecule has the potential to make a difference for patients.”

After 12 years at Genentech, Wendy was promoted to Senior Vice President, Small Molecule Drug Discovery, where today she leads the company’s team of drug discoverers. Now, in addition to building molecules from scratch, she also has the equally challenging task of staying ahead of the next wave of therapies and platform technologies, and understanding how chemistry fits in.

“It’s a great opportunity to lead a small-molecule department filled with brilliant people. It’s a wonderful job because I’m surrounded by people who are experts in the field,” says Wendy. “My job is to remove barriers for these scientists and make sure we continue to innovate and create new investigational medicines—ones no one else has yet imagined.”

*While Wendy was an employee at the time this article was published, she has since left Genentech.