ASCO Education
ASCO Education
Nov 18, 2021
Oncology, Etc. - On Leadership and Pearls of Life with Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann (Part 2)
Play • 20 min

In the second part of this Oncology, Etc. episode Drs. Patrick Loehrer (Indiana University) and David Johnson (University of Texas) continue their conversation with Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, exploring the prominent leadership roles she held, from first female Chancellor at UCSF to CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and member of Facebook’s Board of Directors.

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Air Date: 11/18/21



SPEAKER 1: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and inform. This is not a substitute for medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.

PAT LOEHRER: Hi, Everybody. I'm Pat Loehrer. I'm director of the Centers of Global Health at Indiana University, Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center.

DAVE JOHNSON: And I'm Dave Johnson. I'm Professor of Medicine here at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, Texas. So Pat, we're back for another episode of the award winning "Oncology Et Cetera."

PAT LOEHRER: Just seems like last month we were here time, you know? Time just flies.

DAVE JOHNSON: Exactly. Before we get started, you were telling me about an interesting book you were reading-- something about friends or something. Can you elaborate?

PAT LOEHRER: Sure, sure, yeah. This book I picked up-- actually, my wife picked it up. It's called First Friends.

It's written by Gary Ginsburg. It's a really interesting book. It was-- basically talks about-- it probably has about eight or nine presidents but the importance of having a friend that guides him.

And these were people that were, in many ways, unelected people that were close to the presidents that helped change the face of what we see today, and some of them are stories of really good friends and some of them are, I think, opportunistic friends. But it gives you a background of people like Madison and Lincoln and Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It's actually a fun read.

DAVE JOHNSON: I'll definitely put it on my reading list. It sounds like a pretty exciting one. Well, speaking of influential people, we're really excited to jump back into our interview with Dr. Helman.

In our last episode, we covered her early life and career, her work in Uganda, her views on global oncology, and her experiences in private practice and industry. In the next half of our interview, we'll learn more about her incredible career and her multiple leadership roles. Let's start by hearing about her time as chancellor of UCSF.

PAT LOEHRER: Let me transition a little bit. What I'd like to do is talk a little bit about your leadership. One Of the next big roles you had, you became chancellor at UCSF, correct?

SPEAKER 2: Mm-hm.

PAT LOEHRER: And so as Dave said, I think you were the first woman in that role.

SPEAKER 2: I was.

PAT LOEHRER: You were a groundbreaker from that capacity. So now instead of working for people-- obviously, I understand that there's people you work for when you're chancellor too, but tell a little bit about that transition from industry back into academics and how that felt in the role of being a leader and then maybe the responsibility of being the first female chancellor.

SPEAKER 2: There were parts of being the chancellor at UCSF, I would say most parts of it, that I just thought were fantastic. I loved being back at a hospital and clinics. Just the way the hospital and clinical enterprise at UCSF works, the chancellor is the board.

And so once a month, you'd have neurology or cardiology come and tell you about what had happened, quality control, things that had gone on and I would have done that all day long. I mean, it was just so interesting. It was so important to run a great clinical enterprise that getting back closer to patients and medicine I thought was fantastic.

The other thing was the educational enterprise, and UCSF, as you know, has medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, nursing. I always tell people, no undergraduates, no English majors, no marching band. And the other chancellors reminded me, no athletic director, which apparently is a very good thing.

So UCSF is a very special and unusual place. And I loved the science. I would show up at research seminars and things like that as often as I could. So there were so many parts of being at UCSF that I thought were just off the charts great.

The hardest thing about being at UCSF-- being the first female chancellor, I think, was challenging but not in ways that you might expect. I was used to being a woman leader in medicine and biotech, which was unusual. So being the only woman in the room, being the first, wasn't new to me.

But the thing that was hard on our family was there are roles for the spouse of the chancellor that fit more neatly into more of a classic female role, hosting things. There was a tea party for the wives of the faculty that the wife of the chancellor typically had. And for some reason, Nick didn't think that that suited him. We sort of laughed about that.

DAVE JOHNSON: He can't make tea?

SPEAKER 2: He can't make tea to save his life. And he's a strong introvert, which made it worse. I will tell you, some of the under-recognized, underreported people in life are spouses of chancellors and presidents of universities.

And talk about unpaid labor-- my goodness! And so we sort of struggled with how did Nick show up, what did that look like. Because we didn't have any role models for what that looked like. I still laugh that Bill Clinton said he would be First Laddie.

So when you have a pattern recognition, life is easier. And then being one of 10 chancellors at the UC system, I struggled a little bit with the UC Regents just because it felt-- I became chancellor in 2009, and we had some fiscal realities that we were dealing with. And the pace of the UC Regents and the format of the UC Regents, I actually made a proposal for UCSF to kind of break off from the other 9.

And that was not well-received, got me in the newspaper. And I did not do that again. People saw it as disloyal and not very smart. But all in all, I thought then and think now that our public universities are absolutely-- they're treasures in America. And I was really proud to be a part of it and hope that I had made a contribution.

DAVE JOHNSON: Speaking of leadership, what was it like to be CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? What caused you to step away from chancellor to philanthropy?

PAT LOEHRER: It's not a step down. It's not a step down, basically.

DAVE JOHNSON: It is not a step down.

SPEAKER 2: So I would say a couple of things. First of all, Bill and Melinda pushed me hard to take the job. I was not looking to change.

My husband worked at the Gates Foundation for a couple of years on HIV. So they knew us, and they knew Nick better than me. But they knew both of us.

We awarded Melinda the University medal at UCSF. And to my great surprise and happiness, she accepted and came. I later think that she was using that as a reason to talk to me about the CEO job, but she got a twofer.

And I was really compelled by the mission. Who wouldn't be? I was really compelled by the mission and the chance to get back into global health after the experience I had had in Uganda.

But I'll tell you, it is the ambition of the Gate Foundation, the scope of the Gates Foundation, the resources, and the need to get something done. I tell you, it is hard work. It is really hard work-- from China to India to all of the continent of Africa and then US education.

Throw that in on top of things. So I was thrilled to be a part of driving the agenda and the mission. Some really talented people who are working very hard at the Gates Foundation-- I was surprised, especially on US education, with the amount of pushback. And I worked really hard to be successful at working with Bill, who's known as a tough character and lived up to that mutation.

DAVE JOHNSON: Good to know, just in case he calls Pat or me.

PAT LOEHRER: Yeah, yeah, I'm not going to get a medal at UCSF either. So that's a--

DAVE JOHNSON: You never know, Pat.

PAT LOEHRER: It's a non-starter. And this may not apply to you, but there's a lot of maybe disproportionate number of women who feel they suffer from this imposter syndrome. To be honest, Dave and I have talked about that.

We both feel in that syndrome too. But along the way, I mean, if you think about growing up in Reno, Nevada, and suddenly now being a chancellor and head of the Gates Foundation, the National Academy of Science, was there ever this sense of the, wait a minute, you know, what's going on? Is this real?

SPEAKER 2: For me, there has always been that sense. There has always been that sense, and I look at it as I hope there always will be that sense-- that the kind of need to demonstrate your value. And there's a part of the imposter syndrome that is humility and not overestimating what you can do.

And so on my best days, I think that leads me to say I've got to work with really terrific people. My job is to bring out the best in others. If I lead, it's because there's a great thing we're going to accomplish, and I can help people see where we're going together.

And so I definitely have had imposter syndrome. But the one thing that I probably overused and kind of grew to like too much was the thing of people underestimating me and then proving them wrong. That gets a little wearying after a while.

It's like, OK, we're going to waste some time while you decide whether I'm worthy or whether I can do this. And let's not waste that time. Why don't you assign to me-- give me some confidence, and I'll live up to that.

And I mentioned Art Levinson was my boss for most of the time I was at Genentech. And he had no time for imposter syndrome. He was like, look, how many promotions do you have to get before you think, OK, I can get this done?

He thought that was sort of-- he just didn't have time for it. We have things to do, and he had jobs to get done. And one of the things I loved about him is he would constantly push me to say, you're capable of more than you think you are, which I think is the sign of a fantastic manager, which he was and is.

And so I've tried to push myself to do that. And the thing is, like, you can do this. Come to me for help.

We'll make sure you succeed, but don't underestimate yourself. And I think that's a consequence of imposter syndrome is both wasting time proving yourself and not taking on something that you think, actually, let me give that a try and stack the deck in favor of succeeding. And so I think that's the thing that-- there's a certain fierceness that I've always had that I like about myself that, like, of course we will succeed.

Failure is not an option. Of course we will succeed. And I think that comes from working on things that I value a lot and care about a lot.

PAT LOEHRER: You have been on a number of different boards, including Pfizer as well as Facebook. And in that capacity, you've seen a lot of leaders. Can you talk a little bit about the strengths and the weakness of various leaders as well as serving on the boards and the capacities of the different companies?

SPEAKER 2: Yeah, well, first, let me say I know ASCO is actually a really good about being careful about conflicts of interest and things like that, and I am too. So when I became chancellor at UCSF and then CEO at the Gates Foundation, I avoided being on life sciences boards. And so I got asked a lot by Biotech and pharma boards to be on their boards.

Initially, I joined Procter Gamble's board, where I served for, I think, about six years. And then I joined Facebook's board. And those were both fantastic experiences.

And I actually joined the boards for two very different reasons. One, P&G's board, I wanted to learn about branding and consumers. And I felt like in medicine, I didn't really learn about consumers or branding as much as I needed to or might.

And then Facebook's board I joined because as Dave mentioned, I was with Charles Sawyers. We wrote the precision medicine report for the National Academy. And I really love-- to this day, I love the concept of using the social network to connect people.

There was sort of an infamous story or famous story-- it's actually a good story-- of patients with a certain form of myeloma who found each other on Facebook and went to Genentech and said, make a new medicine for those of us with this genetic abnormality. And we'll all enroll in a trial. And so these connections to me felt really powerful on precision medicine.

And so getting to work with CEOs at Procter and Gamble, the CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, I do see the really different attributes of leaders. But when you're a board member, you see those attributes of leaders with a very different lens. What's the return to shareholders?

How does the community think about them? What's the impact-- and increasingly for Facebook, what's the impact on the world? What's the impact on our social discourse and our ability to have a free and fair election? A lot of those things became much more operative on the Facebook board while I was on the board and really tough social issues that continue to this day.

DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah, so we could go on for another hour, hour and a half, but I have one question to ask you which may seem a little bit silly in retrospect. But if you could look back on your youthful self at 21 or 22 knowing what you know now, with all the things that you've done during the course of your career, what advice would you give yourself? And perhaps I'll addend that by saying what advice would you give particularly to young women in the medical profession who are trying to balance that work-life balance that everyone talks about and worries about and struggles with, quite frankly.

SPEAKER 2: I'll give you one thing I should have done better and one thing that I think I did well. So the advice on the one thing I should have done better, I think slow down a little bit and take a bit more time for fun and enjoyment. I was extremely worried about money when I was in college, and being number two of seven-- every summer, I worked.

I remember at one point in medical school, I had three weeks off, and I got a job for those three weeks at a deli making sandwiches. And I went to college for three years, crammed it into three years so I wouldn't have to pay for the fourth year. So I just think that I could have taken on more loans.

I could have done some things to just dial it down a bit because you don't get those years back. And that's such a great time of your life when you're 21, 22, something like that. So I wish I'd have just slowed down a bit and not been so driven for those seven years of university and medical school that I really just either worked or studied all the time.

The thing that I feel like I did well, and I would say this to anybody who's going into medicine, is there's so many opportunities. There's so many wonderful things to do. But whoever your spouse is, whoever your partner in life is, take the time and energy to make sure that's the right person for you.

I feel so blessed. Actually, my husband, who I've mentioned several times in this discussion, Nick, was my roommate in San Francisco when I was an intern, like real roommate. And we've been roommates ever since.

And we're very compatible. He's one of seven kids too. It's another Catholic school kid.

And we just have fun together and support each other. And there's no way I could have taken these crazy jobs or done the kinds of things I've done without Nick. So having a wonderful, supportive partner makes everything better.

DAVE JOHNSON: That definitely resonates with Pat and me. We're both very blessed to have wives and spouses of, for me, it's 52 years. I can't remember, Pat. Yours is close.

PAT LOEHRER: I had my first date with my wife 50 years ago, yeah.


SPEAKER 2: OK, so you guys know what I'm talking about.

PAT LOEHRER: Absolutely.



DAVE JOHNSON: Go ahead, Pat.

PAT LOEHRER: I was going to ask a question that you probably may have already answered there, but Bob Woodward just came out of an interview with Colin Powell. One of the last questions he asked him was if he could reflect on that one person that was a moral compass for him. And so for you, that one person, alive or dead, that has been not the most powerful person you've met but the one that's really influenced you the most in terms of giving you direction, who would that be for you?

SPEAKER 2: Probably, if I look at through line the entire time I've been alive, it would be my dad. He had the ability to look at a room and find the person who was struggling and go over to them. And I really loved that about my dad.

PAT LOEHRER: I love it.

DAVE JOHNSON: One last question. So we're at the top of the hour, and I know you're a very busy person. Pat and I love to read, but we're also documentary fiends and whatnot.

We're interested. What have you read recently that really resonated with you? Do you have a recommendation for us?

SPEAKER 2: I will say during the pandemic, I've gotten back into reading biographies, which I love.


SPEAKER 2: So I did the Caro, Lyndon Baines Johnson, which, Master of the Senate is really good. But my favorite book of the last two years is The Code Breaker, Walter Isaacson's book about Jennifer Doudna.


SPEAKER 2: One of the things I love about Walter Isaacson is he teaches you science through his biographies. Like, I think I understand relativity based on his Einstein biography, which is great. But The Code Breaker is really super good.

DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah, we both read it. We couldn't agree with you more.

PAT LOEHRER: Love it. Love it.

DAVE JOHNSON: So Sue, again, it's been a real honor to have you as our guest, and we really appreciate the time you've taken. Thank you so much, and we hope you enjoy the beautiful weather in Alamo California, and I hope it does turn green and the rain continues for you.

SPEAKER 2: Thank you so much. It's been my pleasure. Thank you both.

DAVE JOHNSON: Take care.


DAVE JOHNSON: I want to take the moment to thank our listeners for tuning in to "Oncology Et Cetera," an ASCO educational podcast where Pat and I really will talk about anything and everything. So if you have an idea or a topic you'd like to share with us and like for us to pursue, please email us at Thanks again, and keep in mind that Pat is a giant in oncology, but he's a short instructor. Thanks, everybody.

SPEAKER 1: Thank you for listening to this week's-- to make us part of your weekly routine, click Subscribe. Let us know what you think by leaving a review. For more information, visit the comprehensive e-learning center at

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