How I Became a Gynecologic Oncologist and Medical Director in Oncology Product Development

Apr 13, 2018

Yvonne G. Lin, MD, MS, is a gynecologic oncologist and currently works as a medical director in product development for oncology at Genentech-Roche, a position she has held for 3 years. An ASCO member since her fellowship training, she is a member of the Professional Development Committee and the Women in Oncology Working Group, and was a 2014-2015 participant in the Leadership Development Program.

How did you initially choose your current career path? Were there any unexpected detours along the way?

YL: When I started OB/GYN residency at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, I was fairly certain I wanted to pursue subspecialty training in GYN oncology. However, I had never considered a career in industry at that time.

The first unexpected detour in my career path was when I took the plunge and moved to Houston for fellowship. Up until that time, I was mostly bicoastal—east coast or west coast. But, during the interview process, I had the chance to meet a tremendously diverse group of successful, driven individuals who espoused many of the same goals I did: to deliver the best possible care for women with GYN cancers, and, for those of us who were research-inclined, to discover the next transformative therapy for women with GYN cancers. Once I matched at MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC), I was fortunate to get paired with my selected mentor, Dr. Anil Sood, a physician-scientist and GYN oncologist. This key experience gave me the opportunity to learn not just the science of cancer biology, but also the traits and habits harbored by a successful academician and clinician. Importantly, this experience unexpectedly led me to develop a deep interest and commitment to cancer research.

My second unexpected detour came from attending the 2016 AACR Methods in Cancer Research Workshop in Aspen after my first year of fellowship, at the recommendation of Dr. Sood. As it turned out, I was impressed from nearly the moment that I stepped foot onto the campus. This workshop not only brought inspirational cancer researchers off the proverbial plenary stage and into these intimate workshops as our small-group mentors, it showed me that they came from all corners of cancer research—from the basic science labs at MIT to the usual university hospital/tertiary cancer centers to industry. During this workshop, Dr. Bill Sellers was assigned as one of the mentors for our workgroup. Bill had just transitioned to industry from a successful academic translational physician-scientist career. At first glance, that move seemed like it might jeopardize his freedom to innovate scientifically and clinically. However, in reality, I came to recognize and appreciate that industry could actually lead and conduct highly impactful research and develop it with the high-efficiency goal of providing patients with better therapies.

These two pivotal experiences laid the foundation for my entry into academic medicine. They gave me the tools to successfully write, assemble, and secure my NIH K08 grant, as well as my first investigator-initiated cooperative group trial. But, importantly, they showed me unique approaches toward advancing our understanding of cancer so that, ultimately, I could offer more for our patients.

As a GYN oncologist, it’s tempting and easy to limit my professional circle to other GYN oncologists, radiation oncologists, and GYN pathologists. However, cancer biology and especially novel therapies really transcend the organ of origin, so getting exposure to different diseases is important. One of the unique experiences that has shaped my professional journey is that, over the years, I’ve been fortunate to train and practice in very different environments throughout the United States. I’ve also been fortunate to stay in touch with colleagues and friends from specialties ranging from medical oncology to pulmonary medicine to pediatrics to urology.

I like to say that my transition from academia to industry spanned several years, because my move to industry was the result of years of casual conversation with colleagues and friends outside of GYN oncology and in industry who shared many of the same interests I had, who shared the same priorities I had. At any rate, whether my joining industry was a deliberate effort on their part or simply an organic movement is hard to ascertain definitively. But my unique experiences of working in different geographic regions across the U.S. and maintaining diverse connections across seemingly disparate specialties have collectively shaped my professional journey, including my most recent adventure from academia to industry.

Describe your typical work day.

YL: Because I work on multiple projects and with multiple teams, I have no “typical” work day. The common thread across what I do is that Genentech is a big believer in team science. On any given day, depending on the project I’m working on, I may be dialoguing with my biomarker scientists as we refine our biomarker strategy and corresponding experiments for our program (and sneaking in some one-on-one intensive tutoring for me from our top-notch scientists); or I may be dialoguing with investigators, many of whom are my former colleagues in clinical practice, providing additional context about our trial; or I may be doing a host of other activities centered around moving science forward with efficient clinical trials and ultimately rapid access for our patients.

Because my company is based in Switzerland with additional offices in Shanghai, I personally try to be as flexible as possible with regards to my work hours. I believe at the end of the day, if you love your work (and I do), the time you spend working is actually as enriching as the time you spend doing other things you enjoy.

If you have to pick one aspect, what part of your job is your favorite? What part is the most challenging or frustrating?

YL: My favorite aspect of my job is the diversity of activities I participate in—from clinical research, to clinical education, to translational research, to business partnering, and even some corporate governance.

The most challenging aspect of my job is simply that there are not enough hours to do all the things I’d like to do. Along the same lines, I have teams in China, Basel, and California, and working across time zones can blur the “work” and “life” compartments of my day.

What do you wish you had known before you chose your career path?

YL: One important difference between academia and industry is the investment in self-development. For example, prior to moving to Genentech, I had delivered my share of invited lectures both at my home institution and at other institutions. I had modeled my talks (i.e., slides, content, style) after those given by my mentors throughout academia, and they were well received, at least on the 5-point Likert scale. After I moved to Genentech, I registered for some executive speaking courses and learned about the power of good slides and great presentations. These seminars were so valuable that I felt they needed to be shared, so as a member of the Women in Oncology Working Group within the ASCO Professional Development Committee, I organized an executive presentation seminar during the Annual Meeting for the Women’s Networking Lounge, taught by Reci Schmellick and Moira Kavanaugh of PowerSpeaking, Inc. As I watched more than 100 women stream into the lounge to take charge of their professional development, I recognized that I should have taken advantage of such offerings earlier in my career. Nevertheless, I am thankful I have that opportunity now.

Why would you recommend this career to someone starting out in oncology?

YL: I would actually recommend this career to someone who has some post-training clinical experience rather than a new fellowship graduate. As physicians, we have a unique and critical perspective in identifying that unmet medical need and balancing the practical aspects of conducting clinical trials at the site level with the strict regulatory demands of designing the clinical trial. The clinical perspective that we have as physicians, especially if we are able to have clinical trial experience as a study chair or even a site principal investigator, is an important, refreshing perspective to infuse into the industry because we have that personal understanding of what it takes to care for a patient with cancer.

What kind of person thrives in this professional environment?

YL: The overwhelming majority of our work is team-oriented, including obtaining consensus prior to making decisions. Therefore, in order to thrive in this environment, you have to be a consummate team player. You have to be willing to understand and support a team decision. You have ample opportunity to make your point and present evidence, and while it’s tempting also to lead and drive projects, it’s equally important to recognize and respect that each person is on the team for a specific reason. Each team member should have the same opportunity you have to own and lead their portion of the project.

“How I Became” is a series about the numerous and varied career paths in oncology. In each issue, a member will discuss their career journey and give an insider’s view of their profession. Email to tell us what career paths you’d like to see covered, or to contribute to this series.

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