UCSF

Dresser follows in Giacomini’s footsteps as an advocate for DEI in science and industry

When Mark Dresser, PhD ’00, left UCSF with a doctoral degree in pharmaceutical chemistry over twenty years ago, the world looked different than it does today. Freshly-minted science PhDs like Dresser didn’t have a wide variety of career paths to choose from. UCSF’s Mission Bay campus—now the center of the university’s research operations—was in its infancy and mostly looked like an abandoned rail yard.

And the young Dresser, who was elected president of the American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics (ASCPT) earlier this year, didn’t know who he could look up to in the biotechnology industry who shared his identity as an LGBTQ individual.

“I was closeted for the first half of my career because I was afraid that my sexual orientation could jeopardize my career,” said Dresser, who is gay. “There were very, very few openly LGBTQ people in science when I started, and certainly there was no one in a leadership position in biotech.”

Dresser’s career has spanned companies like Johnson & Johnson, Genentech, and Denali Therapeutics, and he is now a senior vice president at Gilead Sciences. Dresser’s leadership of ASCPT reflects his deep expertise in drug development, translational science, and medicine, but he is also the first openly LGBTQ+ president of ASCPT in its 122-year history.

Having experienced challenges and barriers as a gay man in science, Dresser aims to make the field a place where anyone can succeed and be authentically themselves. He credits his years at UCSF, and in particular his time learning from UCSF School of Pharmacy faculty member Kathy Giacomini, PhD, for inspiring him and giving him the confidence to pursue his scientific goals.

“Kathy taught me to think deeply as a scientist and how to conduct science in a very rigorous and efficient way,” said Dresser. “But she also spent a lot of time with everyone in her lab, helping us build our communication skills. I was very shy, introverted, and very afraid of public speaking when I joined Kathy’s lab. Kathy’s help with getting me over this barrier has been essential for my career. Kathy was also completely accepting of who I was; she always graciously welcomed my husband to our lab social events.”

A lifelong mentorship

Giacomini, who herself served as ASCPT president in 2012, saw Dresser’s promise early on, and has witnessed his strengths carry him through a fulfilling career.

“Mark is extremely bright, he’s creative, he is innovative. He is not afraid to take his own path,” said Giacomini, who kept in touch with Dresser over the years. “But he also has kindness and understanding towards all people, and that makes him very special.”

Dresser’s ongoing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has further meaning for Giacomini, who is biracial. Giacomini is a staunch advocate for the rights of people who she feels “have not yet been fully embraced by our society.”

“I'm so happy we are at this moment in time, when everybody's beginning to realize the value of diversity,” said Giacomini, who over the years has served on various campus committees for increasing diversity at UCSF. “We need to seize this moment and make changes, now, in our culture, to embrace even more diversity, something that Mark stands for with his openness in the LGBTQ world, and I think that's fabulous.”

Giacomini, who is an expert in pharmacogenomics and membrane transporters, gave Dresser an early foundation in thinking both broadly and practically about science.

“She has this remarkable gift of being both very visionary, and at the same time grounded in the reality of a situation,” said Dresser. “She also has and continues to build incredible collaborations with individuals in academia and industry.”

Encouraging diversity across science

Giacomini’s focus on communication and collaboration also gave Dresser a framework for building diverse teams no matter which company he found himself contributing to, which ranged from large corporations like Johnson & Johnson to Denali Therapeutics, a young company he helped launch with former colleagues from Genentech.

“I've been involved in decision making at some of the world's best companies, and I’ve seen the benefit of having diverse perspectives at the table,” said Dresser. “It not only enriches the conversation, and generates new and different ideas, it ultimately leads to better decisions.”

Dresser and Giacomini may no longer collaborate directly in the same laboratory, but their mission is shared: to pursue scientific discovery and therapeutic advances relentlessly, all while lifting up the next, diverse generation of innovators and leaders.

“I feel everyone should get in touch with who they are, first, and then what they value, and what they want their life to kind of reflect and be about, and then live that life,” said Giacomini. “Mark has come to me when he’s had these larger moments, balancing his desire to help people with his career aspirations, and I’m proud that he continues to live his life true to himself.”

And Dresser’s attempts to improve opportunities for underrepresented groups from his new perch atop the ASCPT—an appointment that will last just one calendar year, like the presidents before him—won’t be his last.

“Beyond just having representation—which still has a long way to go—we need to find ways to meaningfully support our LGBTQ young people,” said Dresser. “There's no simple answer to it, though reaching out and looping them into the right networks is a start. Science is open to everyone, and I hope I encourage younger people to aspire to leadership positions that they might not otherwise consider.”

Thanks to Emily Huang for additional reporting.

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About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.