Interview with Professor Vicki Sato of Harvard University

The Journal of Young Investigators had the opportunity to interview Professor Vicki Sato who is as much a leader in science and academia as she is in business and industry. Please read or listen to the interview below.

Professor Vicki Sato

Professor Vicki Sato

Biography of Professor Vicki Sato

Source: Harvard Business School

Vicki L. Sato, Ph.D, is Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, and also Professor of the Practice in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, Harvard University. She also teaches in HBS Executive Education programs. She is a business advisor to Atlas Ventures and other enterprises in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

Dr. Sato retired recently from Vertex Pharmaceuticals, where she served as President since 2000, with responsibility for research and development, business and corporate development, commercial operations, legal, and finance. Prior to becoming President, she was Chief Scientific Officer, Senior Vice President of Research and Development, and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board. Under her leadership, Vertex created a diversified pipeline of drugs, including two HIV protease inhibitors approved and marketed by GlaxoSmithKline, an oral protease inhibitor ( VX 950) for the treatment of hepatitis C, now in late clinical development, two anti-inflammatory drug candidates in clinical development, a novel molecule for the treatment of cystic fibrosis now in Phase I clinical testing, and two kinase inhibitors being for the treatment of cancers. In addition, a new molecule for the management of pain has been recently licensed to GlaxoSmithKline.

Before joining Vertex, Dr. Sato was Vice President of Research at Biogen, Inc, where she led research programs in the areas of inflammation, thrombosis, and HIV disease, and participated in the executive management of the company. Several molecules from those programs have now reached the marketplace. She also served as a member of the Biogen Scientific Board.

Currently, Dr. Sato is a member of the Board of Directors of Bristol Myers Squibb Company, PerkinElmer Corporation, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. She is also Chair of the Overseers of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and an advisor to the Accelerated Cure Project, a nonprofit organization committed to finding a cure for multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Sato received her AB from Radcliffe College, and her AM and PHD degrees from Harvard University. Following postdoctoral work at both the University of California Berkeley and Stanford Medical Center, Dr. Sato was appointed to the faculty of Harvard University, where she was an Assistant and Associate Professor of Biology.


Transcript of Interview Shiv Gaglani: Hello everyone! Welcome to the Journal of Young Investigators. My name is Shiv Gaglani, and I am the Chief Executive Officer of JYI. Today, we are honored and privileged to be speaking with Professor Vicki Sato of Harvard University. She has a joint appointment at the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the Harvard Business School. So thank you, Professor Sato, for joining us. Professor Vicki Sato: Shiv, my pleasure. Shiv Gaglani: So I think the first question we want to know is how did you get to where you are right now? Professor Sato: Well that's a long and tortured path; see SO you really don't want the whole story. Just briefly, I actually started out life as an undergraduate at Radcliffe College, which tells you something about my age. Got my undergraduate degree in Biology, stayed at Harvard and got a PhD in Biology, and then I went and post doc'ed at Berkeley and at Stanford, and switched fields in there, actually, from biophysics into immunology, because I really wanted to study human biological systems.

Then I came back to Harvard to what was then the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology as a young faculty member. Back in the 70s, if one wanted to do serious biological science, the academic arena was the place where you did it. So it wasn't like chemists and physicists who always had a legitimate industrial career possibility; biologists either went to medical school or did academic science.

So I came back to Harvard and I ran a lab and I taught Bio 169, which was Immunology. I had grad students and post-docs and was happy to be an untenured faculty member at Harvard University.

Shiv Gaglani: I am sure there was no stress accompanied with that. Professor Sato: Absolutely not, I mean it was just a piece of cake. Shiv Gaglani: Great! So how did your interest in biology and immunology then transition in to business? Professor Sato: Good question. I was lucky enough to be doing immunology at -- well, as I said, in the mid and late 70s, at a time when the biotechnology industry was just starting. As you know, the biotechnology industry started among other places here in Cambridge with scientists at Harvard and MIT really involved in one of the first biotech companies to be formed, which was Biogen.

So Genentech had started in California to great fanfare and a remarkable day of public offering, but Wally Gilbert at Harvard, Phil Sharp at MIT, Charles Weissmann in Zürich, Ken Murray in Edinburgh decided that there was an opportunity for another biotech company, and they really wanted to combine the scientific strengths of East Coast American science and European science in a broad based biotechnology company.

So I wasn't involved with Biogen at the time, but Wally and I were teaching immunology together. I got these calls on the weekends sometimes, and he would say "I can't get there for the lecture because I am trying to raise $10 million for Schering-Plough or Monsanto or whatever, and can you cover?"

So I guess I watched the early days of a very exciting enterprise. I never thought about it as a career for myself at that point, but I was very curious about what this new industry was that was being started. That was my looking-through-the-window introduction to biotechnology.

Shiv Gaglani: I see. So right now I know that you are teaching some classes at the college, do you ever call one of your assistants and tell them that you are trying to raise $10 million so can they cover for you? Professor Sato: Well, the first thing is that $10 million today isn't what it was then. But I haven't (called an assistant) yet, but past performance is no predictor of future performance either. Shiv Gaglani: So speaking of the classes that you are teaching right now, I know you are teaching one on drug development. What type of experience are you having, teaching that class? Professor Sato: So teaching that class is great. I should say the reason I am teaching that class was driven by what I did after I watched Biogen get started, which is after I had been at Harvard as a faculty member for about eight years I actually took a sabbatical and got involved in a startup, because it seemed like it would be fun. I met my first venture capitalist and my first patent attorney and all those things, and I discovered that it was an opportunity to do science in a very different environment, in a very different way, and I really liked it.

So I left academia and spent the next 25 years in the biotech industry; first running research labs and then at Vertex being responsible more broadly for the company.

One of the things that I realized as I started to near retirement age was that, we read all the time about the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is suffering. where efficient Modern biomedical science is exploding, but that explosion isn't being translated into new medicines as quickly as it should be. In fact, it's taking longer and costing more.

(00:04:57)

I really started to feel that we need to get the next generation of scientists excited about biotech and pharmaceutical science. So I thought that the way to do this is – based on my experience, I am a little biased, was that a good place to find really bright, motivated science students was at Harvard college.

So I liked the idea of thinking about a course that was more applied in the curriculum. Professor Gregory Verdine in the Chemistry department and Dr. Mark Fishman who has done LEADS research at Novartis were thinking along similar lines. So the three of us banded together and persuaded the departments of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology to let us introduce this course into the curriculum.

So it's a course called Principles of Drug Discovery and Development. It really attempts to teach both the science and some of the business of making drugs.

Shiv Gaglani: Right. I actually took Stanley Finkelstein's course this past semester and it has a similar title; its Principles and Practice of Drug Development, which is at MIT.

But anyway, so you have also taught some more basic science courses as well. What did you say, Biology 169?

Professor Sato: I actually came to Harvard as a young assistant professor and I taught what was then called Biology 2, which was the introductory then required biology course for all bio majors; it was a lab course. Then I started teaching Bio 169, which is the immunology course, and I think it's been taught for many years very successfully. It's a very popular course.

Now I also teach a course here at Harvard Business School with colleagues called Inventing Breakthroughs and Commercializing Science. It is a course for second year MBA students and for PhDs, MDs, post-docs, lawyers, and people in the School of Public Health. It's the most diverse course at the business school here, where we bring scientists and lawyers and MBAs together to learn some of the business principles and challenges around trying to take a breakthrough scientific technology and make a business out of it.

I call it a lab course because we study cases on issues like intellectual property and technology transfer and financing, but the students actually work on projects around science coming out of the different Harvard teaching hospitals and Harvard research laboratories, and they help the inventors work on business plans and market analysis and things like that.

Shiv Gaglani: That's the course that I think was featured in the Gazette and the Crimson for Diagnostics-For-All. Professor Sato: Yes, the team for Diagnostics-For-All, which was a team that won both the Harvard and the MIT Business Plan contest, they were fantastic. That team started with students who were in the class. Shiv Gaglani: Right. That's a nonprofit organization, right? Professor Sato: Yes, it's a nonprofit business model. They won the Social Enterprise Track here at Harvard. I think it was the first time that a not-for-profit business model won the MIT 100K competition. So they were a terrific team. Shiv Gaglani: Wow! So I am sure you have taught many students. Do you still keep in touch with any of them? Professor Sato: Well, I have had some pretty interesting experiences with students. I have had the fun of having some of the students that I taught back in the late 70s and early 80s appear in very interesting ways. So I will tell you two stories.

One was about when I was at Vertex, I think, we were on the road trying to do an equity financing for the company. We walked into a lot of Wall Street portfolio firms, pitching our story. A young man came to listen to the story, and after I did the pitch, he said to me, Dr. Sato, you probably don't remember me but I took Biology 169 from you several years ago.

We were asking his firm to consider a significant investment, and I was thinking, oh my God, what grade did he get?

Then more recently, I have had some alumni also from teaching days get in touch with me. They are doing great things, they are really doing great things, all important research scientists in their own right. So it's neat. It's one of the great things about teaching - seeing what people have done.

(00:10:06)

Shiv Gaglani: Right. So in your current role, you are doing work in both academia and industry. Do you prefer one over the other or? Professor Sato: I have always liked the diversity of things that I do. It's one of the reasons I loved doing science in a corporate environment, because I was able to participate in science that crossed many different fields. We had projects in coagulation, in cancer, in HIV, etc. It allowed me to do science broadly. I liked the combination of science and the challenges of trying to build a business around science. Shiv Gaglani: So back to your undergraduate years, because most of our audience consists of undergraduates; did you do any undergraduate research back at Radcliffe? Professor Sato: I did. So I know most of you don't even know what Radcliffe is, but I did get involved in undergraduate research quite early. So my second year at Radcliffe, Harvard, I started working in a laboratory in the Bio Labs. I actually at that time considered myself premed, and it was really the excitement of the research opportunity that persuaded me to go to grad school instead of going to med school. So it was important: I had a great research experience as an undergraduate. Shiv Gaglani: Do you mind if I ask who you were working with or what type of research it was? Professor Sato: I was working with Professor Paul Levine, who is no longer a Harvard faculty member, he is retired now, as you might imagine since I retired. He worked on the genetics of photosynthesis, which is what my undergraduate research was on. I ultimately stayed there and did my PhD in his laboratory, really focusing on using genetic tools to dissect the photosynthetic electron transport chain, which you all read about in textbooks, but at the time that I was doing this research, it was actually considered an exciting field of research because there were lots of questions still to be answered. Shiv Gaglani: Yeah, definitely. I think we all have read about that research. So that was in the 60s, right? Professor Sato: That was in the late 60s or early 70s. So it was an interesting time to be at Harvard. There was the general strike, there was the occupation of University hall. We went from being as women, we went from having to show up in class and at dinner in skirts to being able to wear high leather boots and going any place we wanted. So it was a time of great intellectual and social transition at Harvard. Shiv Gaglani: Great! So I just want to wrap this up by asking you some final questions. First of all, how transformative was your undergraduate research experience in your future career? Professor Sato: Well, I guess it was pretty transformative because it changed my career path from medical school to graduate school. So it was pretty fundamental, and it was completely because of the experience I had as an undergraduate doing research in this laboratory. It was intellectually exciting. I felt part of a small community. The independence was both frightening and exhilarating actually.

So I am a big fan of undergraduate research experiences. I think that they really broaden one's perspective, and they give you a sense, a taste for what doing science is like. Science can be lonely and frustrating, and it's important to sample that firsthand and find out whether the exhilaration you get from doing research for you as an individual, how that balances out against the frustration and sometimes the loneliness.

Shiv Gaglani: Right. So we at JYI also, of course, support undergraduate research, but we also support them through publishing. Were you able to publish any of the research you did as an undergrad? Professor Sato: I did not. I will make a comment on that, because I think what's important about undergraduate research is the experience of doing the research. I am less enthused about the drive to publish or even the drive to write a thesis. I think that sometimes one can choose problems that aren't as interesting or as challenging as one might because one is looking at a short-term goal of publishing or writing a thesis.

(00:14:50)

I think if you do the research and its successful and there is enough content there to write either a paper or a thesis, hey, that's great. But I think you shouldn't go into the experience with that as a predetermined end goal. It causes you to ask a different set of questions that you think can be done in the time. It's not like that's not a legitimate thing to do, but I think you are constraining your experience. I don't think that's what the experience is about.

Shiv Gaglani: That makes a lot of sense. My last question for you is if you have any advice to current undergraduates who are interested in academic and/or industrial science? Professor Sato: Well, first of all, I think it's great that you are. We need people to be interested in science and business, and we need people who are interested in the intersection of both. The advice that I give my undergraduate advisees and tutees is to sample broadly. Use your summer vacations, if you will, to take some risk and do something you wouldn't otherwise do.

I have had students who have taken that advice and who have spent their summers doing a lot of research, for example, or spending a summer working at a financial company or an investment bank; (assuming any of them are left, the banks I mean.) I think the ability to work in different environments is an important thing to incorporate into your undergraduate planning. It's a great time in your life.

So not just doing the same thing over and over, but really allowing yourself to have some different experiences is my advice.

Shiv Gaglani: Great! Professor Sato: And it's free so you don't have to take it. Shiv Gaglani: Well, thank you very much Professor Sato, we appreciate your time. Professor Sato: My pleasure. Thank you.

Total Duration: 17 Minutes.

JYI is comprised entirely of undergraduates from six countries and over 50 academic institutions.
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