UCSF chancellor honored by Commonwealth Club


Desmond-Hellmann is used to passing the lime-light to some of the greatest minds in medicine. She says her nearly three years as chancellor at UCSF have been as much about inspiring people as managing them.

"What great leaders do is they make sure everyone hears about the vision," Desmond-Hellmann said. "Then they let the most talented people get on with what they do and stay out of the way except where you can make a difference in creating a great environment."

And that environment is growing fast. On the shelf of Desmond-Hellman's office sit a hard hat and a model of the university's recently opened stem cell center. Three new hospitals are slated to open in 2015 on the Mission Bay campus.

"It will have the Benioff Children's Hospital, Desmond-Hellmann said. "It will have women's and cancer hospitals."

If her current position is high profile, her beginnings were far less so, growing up in Nevada, the daughter of a pharmacist in a family of seven children.

"I so loved seeing my dad help people in that drug store," Desmond-Hellmann said. "I didn't know what I would do in medicine, but I was very inspired by that vision of my dad."

She says a second inspiration came early in her career as a cancer specialist, when she and her husband, also a doctor, volunteered to serve in Uganda. It was the 1980s when AIDS and related cancers were a death sentence.

"It completely changed what I expected of myself," Desmond-Hellmann said. "I felt like I was so privileged and was incredibly fortunate compared to everyone I ment in Uganda so I raised the personal bar of what I expected of myself in a powerful way."

But the landscape for her most well-known accomplishments wasn't a field hospital, or even a medical center, but a drug company that would become a legendary Bay Area success story: Genentech. She was the "D" in R&D.

"The best way to describe it was working harder than you ever had and being happy about it," Desmond-Hellmann said. "Working with colleagues and clear purpose on things we knew would change medicine."

Over 14 years, the company would develop a lineup of some of the most widely used cancer drugs on the market.

Leaving as president of product development, Desmond-Hellmann was by her own admission wealthy. She was able to enjoy the sports and activities she and her love.

But she says the chance to become chancellor at UCSF was yet another turning point in her life.

"I was inspired by a bigger impact that I could make as a leader. When I was asked to be chancellor, that inspired me to enable others to succeed," she said.

Earlier this year she shook up the University Of California regents by proposing that UCSF become more autonomous with looser financial ties to the UC system.

She says her proposals are aimed at bolstering the pace of innovation at UCSF in areas like brain and stem cell research.

"We aspire to be the world's leading health sciences innovator," she said. "That's a big ambition."

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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