When pathologist and researcher Nancy Gillett ’78 decided to leave Genentech, a major medical biotechnology firm, for a small contract research company, her colleagues called it professional suicide. But Gillett had made life-altering career decisions before, moving from being a practicing veterinarian to a research scientist and then to a top-level business executive overseeing 5,000 people at 13 sites around the world.
Gillett’s significant success as a researcher and executive has led to accolades, including the 2013 Regents’ Distinguished Alumna Award from Washington State University. Her path to the University’s highest honor started as the young student from Las Vegas, Nevada, came to WSU to become a veterinarian.
Inspired by the novels of James Herriot and the work of Jane Goodall, Gillett loved animals and came to WSU on the basis of its reputation as a practical education.
“I remember being told early on that WSU was grounded. If you hear hoof beats, they are horses, not zebras. It did a really good job of preparing me as a practitioner,” she says.
She also felt fortunate to be part of the first freshman class with Leo Bustad as dean. As a charismatic leader, he influenced Gillett as a student and she stayed in contact with him later through professional associations.
After WSU, Gillett returned to Nevada as a practicing veterinarian. However, “the romanticism that Herriot portrayed was starting to wear off,” she says. She knew she wanted to make a change when, on the same day in 1979, one older woman wanted a kidney transplant for her dog in renal failure and another owner wanted to know if it was cheaper to lance his cat’s abscess or euthanize the animal. The euthanasia was cheaper, but Gillett lanced the abscess for a discount.
After completing her doctorate in comparative pathology at UC Davis in 1984, Gillett was recruited by Roger McClellan ’60 DVM to work at the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Lovelace Inhalation Toxicology Research Institute.
“Dr. Gillett was one of the most productive scientists among a highly talented group of more than 50 scientists I recruited to the Lovelace Institute,” writes McClellan in his nomination of Gillett for the WSU award.
While at Lovelace, she published 37 papers for peer-reviewed journals or book chapters, many of them with multiple authors in different disciplines. She also contributed significantly to knowledge of the effects of inhaled radionuclides, especially their ability to cause cancer. At that time, Gillett passed the rigorous examination of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists.
She left Lovelace and joined Genentech in 1990. Over the next few years, her research there aided the development of in situ hybridization techniques for studying tissue damage and repair.
In the mid-1990s when Gillett left for Sierra Biomedical in Sparks, Nevada, contract research companies were considered the domain of second-class scientists. But Gillette and her colleagues had a different vision and staffed the company with experts in multiple disciplines such as comparative medicine and pathology.
“At Sierra, we did try to cherry-pick and make a better kind of CRO,” says Gillette. “It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time.”
She liked the immediacy of the small company. As the only pathologist at Sierra for three years, she could make sure the work was done correctly. It wasn’t meant to last, though, as her life and career changed again.
In 1999, Sierra Biomedical was acquired by Charles River Laboratories, a supplier of clinical services and animals for research. The management at Charles River recognized Gillett’s talents and she advanced to chief scientific officer and senior executive vice president.
Gillett and her colleagues at Sierra joined Charles River Laboratories as it sought to diversify from research animals to broader comparative medicine services. Gillett’s experience and strengths fit well in that strategy.
“We tried to take our vision of scientific excellence to Charles River,” she says. “They have that ethos in their research models.”
Gillett advanced through the company to become a senior vice president and in 2011 was named to the newly-created position of chief scientific officer. Her combination of research credentials and business savvy was an asset to Charles River Laboratories.
“I’m the only scientist who reports to the CEO at Charles River,” says Gillett. “Having been a pathologist, having been in the lab and having run those studies myself in the pharmaceutical business, it’s important to have someone like myself as well as someone with a business background.
“I’ll never have the financial acumen, but I understand what we do and what our clients want.”
She sees her role as protecting the scientists and the integrity of the work at Charles River, and ensuring that “the work we’re doing is scientifically valid and cutting edge. I want to make sure science has a seat at the table.”
She remembers her most gut-wrenching experience during the financial crisis of 2008 when she had to stand in front of 350 people and tell them Charles River was closing their site.
Still, says Gillett, “I try to protect the research. Many times scientists are not very practical and we can’t afford everything they want. So I’m trying to understand the science enough and balance that with business needs.”
She has also tried to balance her work with her personal life. One of the main reasons she left Genentech was to have time to focus on her son and daughter when her husband Charles Dickson retired from the military.
As a woman and an executive, she sees more diversity in the workplace, but it’s still not enough. “Sometimes women tend to back off,” she says. “I think we need more women because you need that perspective in business and academia.”
Another of Gillett’s challenges comes from her employer’s main business: research animals. She understands the controversy around using animals in developing new drugs, and has seen progress in reducing the use of animals.
“I can’t wait for the day when we don’t need animals,” says Gillett. “I do think animals are essential to make drugs for people. It’s our moral responsibility to use them extremely ethically and continue to decrease their numbers.”
She says Charles River is focused on the three R’s for animal research: reduction, refinement, and replacement. They want make sure they use the right animal models and find alternatives. “I don’t want people in my company that don’t care about animals. We’re the number one provider of research animals but people are there who care about giving them the best possible life we can,” she says.
As an experimental pathologist, research manager, global business executive, and veterinarian, she has worked to improve the lives of animals and people, while fearlessly accepting the changes in her own life.