A leading scientist discusses Imposter Syndrome, comfort zones, mentorship and dealing with failure

Dr Jennie Lill

When I go to conferences and I’m with a junior male colleague, people still on occasion assume that he is the boss

To most people, cell therapy seems the stuff of modern medical magic — a way to use the body’s own building blocks to provide healing solutions. For Dr Jennie Lill, it’s about rigorous research in her South San Francisco laboratory and an exciting journey of exploration with limitless possibilities. A leading expert on proteomics, lipidomics and next generation sequencing, the Senior Fellow and Executive Director at biotech company Genentech, and an everywoman Ambassador, is at the forefront of leading-edge healthcare. She discusses the importance of failure, dealing with Imposter Syndrome and role modelling work/life balance for her team.


How is biotech changing the face of healthcare — and what’s the common theme for you across your broad research?

Our department’s vision statement is that we're here to create cutting-edge technologies that empower us to find new disease related pathways to intervene with therapeutic approaches giving Genentech an advantage over other counterparts. Part of our success is measured not only by how we can fuel the drug pipeline, but also how we are recognized externally through publications and external talks; the ultimate goal however, is always to help patients. Unlike traditional pharma, which typically focuses on making drugs out of chemicals and small molecule compounds, biotech describes the process of making proteins from biological entities such as antibodies or proteins, — in layman’s terms, we’re using human/mammalian cells to produce a drug out of natural ingredients. Now we and others in Biotech are also moving into gene and cell therapy and other modalities, which is genetically engineering cells and introducing them into patients to help cure disease.


In my lab, we're at the beginning of the drug discovery and development funnel — we might work on 200 different projects in a year, but only 7 to ten may make it from research into development although we learn something from each of these many projects along the way. One example of our recent successes has been in finding a biomarker for a drug that slows the progression of blindness through ageing macular degeneration, for example. Another proud moment has been the development of T-cell engineering —genetically modifying cells that exist in our immune system — to help fight certain cancers. For this particular project I had the privilege of leading the team from its early stages and taking it forward from the basic concept to the point where it is about to be introduced to the clinic.


How do you stay motivated to keep going when there are so many setbacks?

The biggest lesson I've learned — and I often remind colleagues of this — is that if you want to be truly innovative, you're going to have a lot of failure along the way. It’s important to recognise that when something doesn't work the first few times, it's a piece of important information for how you should pivot and what you need to do for the next step. So, in that sense, it’s important that we celebrate our failures, as well as our successes. I also work on many different things at the same time, and you can always take joy from the one project out of 10 that's doing well while others may be challenging. Sometimes our business development or legal teams ask us to deprioritize a project because of competitive intelligence information or business reasons and that can be demoralising. But you have to keep focused and remember that we’re here to find new things and we want to ensure we are working in a niche space so we can bring the most unique and therapeutically relevant drugs to the patients who desperately need them. Within Research and also in my team, everybody gets 20% discretionary time, so they’re always working on something that they’re super interested in. When you choose to work on something, rather than being directed on what you need to do, that's often very motivating in itself.


How do you balance the urgency of what needs to be done with the need to do it right — and maintain your work/life balance in the process?

Research is expensive and there is a finite amount of resources: at the start of a project we know, for example, that we’re going to dedicate a certain amount of money/man power/years to see if this modality will work, and if not, we have to move on. So, we’re always working on quite a tight timeline even though the urgency can feel different to something that really is globally urgent, like research for the Covid vaccine, for example. Also, it’s very important to do the job right; we need the data, and data can take time and it needs to be thoroughly analysed, often by more than one pair of eyes — so it’s always a balance. Day-to-day there are always going to be blips where you will work 16-hour days, but you have to recognise when that’s starting to happen and make sure it’s not the norm. I work with many highly enthusiastic and talented hard working colleagues and thanks to a large computational data analysis element to our work, I can see what people are doing in the evening — and most of them are always working on something even late into the evening or the weekends, often because they enjoy it and want to get things done. I remind them this can't be the status quo. But in order to encourage a healthy work life balance I must model that too. If a disaster happens at the weekend, I will come in and if my team needs me in the evening, they know they can text me — but between six and eight pm, it is always dinner and homework time with my two sons.


It’s common for women in STEM fields to suffer Imposter Syndrome. Is that something you can relate to?

I don’t have imposter syndrome as a scientist because I feel confident in that role; but I do have it as a leader, because I can look around and see all these brilliant people that I work with who have done all these amazing things. There are days where I give a talk and I have to be a bit of an actress. I have to just turn my power up a notch —still be my genuine self, but also come a little out of my comfort zone. To help both myself and others with this, I’ve sponsored a training programme for the past couple of years called Stand & Deliver around executive presence. It looks at how you come across in presentations, how you can make your points concisely — and basically how to ensure you’re being taken seriously. Some of what it teaches is that you have to fake it until you make it until it becomes the norm, create muscle memory for new executive experiences, because a lot of people, and women in particular, are often uncomfortable representing themselves and selling their research. The more I discuss Imposter Syndrome with others though, the more it does look like a female problem to me although perhaps women are more open to discussing the problem.


Has male bias in healthcare ever impacted your own research?

Cell lines are taken from a person's organs or a tumour and are the models that we use every day in the lab. In the last year, our diversity team looked at the ethnicity behind these cell lines and realised that an unbalanced proportion of some representative cell lines are derived from Caucasian males. Some of the diseases we're trying to treat are predominantly in the Asian or black communities, or in females. There is a genetic difference in the proteome in the cell, so why aren’t we using cells derived from the right people? I was at a conference a few years ago where someone mentioned a protein that they just couldn’t find in their cells, no matter what they did. A member of the audience replied, ‘That's a male cell line and that's a female protein. You'll never find it there’. I think it's been an unintentional bias though — previously, we didn't have the tools to backtrack easily to see where a cell came from. Now you can take a cell and within a day you can know its gender and have information about every gene in it. So, part of this has been about technology and part of it has been naivety. At Genentech, we now have a Diversity of Biologics committee to make sure that we've got the right representation in patient material for what we're trying to achieve, they have been a wonderful resource to educate us on navigating this topic.


You’re active in Genentech’s mentoring programmes – what kind of mentor are you?

I’m part of the mentorship programme as well as on the committee that matches mentors and mentees for the research department and I love both of those roles and the feedback that it’s been a successful experience. I mentor formally on the programmes, but I also like to do it on day-to-day basis as well, and again, in both cases I treat it like I do scientific research — for me it is about ‘figuring out where the holes are’. It’s also important to me that I treat my mentees as equals because the mentoring relationship is a partnership and I learn a lot from them personally – some of which I can bring to better leadership within my own team. As a mentor, people often want to talk to you about relationships and career navigation, but while those are important, we're also here to be scientists. A few years ago, I asked people who were on our mentorship programme how they felt about being mentored scientifically, in terms of their critical thinking and training, and many came back to me and said their mentors were too busy to do that adequately. People can, unintentionally be quite competitive with each other in research; you might be working in the same lab, and you both want to get your name on a paper but only one person can be first author, which is a big deal. So, I was supported by our leadership in creating the Scientific Mentorship Award which allows people in Research at Genentech to nominate those who have given up their time to mentor around the actual science itself. Our senior leadership takes the winner out to dinner, they get a plaque with their name on and it is announced at a conference — so it’s a big deal. The aim is to make people think more about the different elements of mentorship and what it can entail for research scientists.


As a woman in STEM how important is it to you personally to pay it forward?

When I go to conferences and I’m with a junior male colleague, people can often assume that he is the boss. Luckily, I have great colleagues who will quickly put them straight. Many of those who come to me for mentoring though are women who are struggling in a male-oriented department and feel opportunities are not given to them, perhaps because they're not as forceful in conversations. To some I say, ‘I know your male counterparts and there are things you can do to help yourself, but I don't think there's biases. But there are still departments where there might be three female scientists and 20 male scientists — and there are a lot of things we're doing as an organisation to try and change that. We must have at least 30% women on any interviewing panel and at least a third of candidates must be female, for example. I find this difficult in computational and chemistry jobs — sometimes there just aren’t enough women in the pool. You have to be very active about going out to find people if you want change, and that’s where we have to focus on the pipeline, and we do a lot of work with local schools and universities to try and make sure that everyone realises there are opportunities for them.