University of Basel Alum Shares Insights for Success

On April 27, the University of Basel (UNIBAS) planted the seeds for a new Swiss Alumni & Friends chapter in the Bay Area through a networking event at swissnex San Francisco.

During the event, led by UNIBAS Head of Communications and Marketing Matthias Geering, visitors connected to fellow UNIBAS alumni, strengthened ties to their alma mater, and expanded their Bay Area community.

The evening’s keynote speaker, Nico Ghilardi, an Associate Director and Senior Scientist at Genentech and a UNIBAS alumnus himself, shared his story of making it in the Bay Area.

After the event, we asked Ghilardi to share a little more about what his experience in the US has been like and how his UNIBAS background helped.

Q: What do you do at Genentech?

A: I am an Associate Director in the immunology discovery group. As such, I oversee the discovery and development of small molecule drugs for immunology indications from the biology side. I am also a Senior Scientist, and in that capacity I do original academic and disease focused basic research.

But drug development is hard, and one could argue it is getting even harder as time goes on. Across our industry, many obvious ideas have been tested and either succeeded or failed.

At Genentech, we try to improve our chances of success by thoroughly researching the biological mechanisms underlying the diseases we are working on. We have a very stringent decision making process, and all of our drug development programs have to have very high levels of biological validation in order to be progressed into the clinic.

In addition, we like to develop predictive diagnostics that identify the patients in which our drugs have the highest chances of working.

Q: What was the biggest challenge in coming to the US?

A: I did not expect a culture shock, but there definitely was one. When you arrive in a new country with just two bags and no money in your pockets, there are bound to be some difficulties.

In the beginning, I struggled with having to prove everything, from the fact that I was a safe driver to my commitment to pay bills on time. Although I had done these things in Switzerland, it didn’t matter – in the US I was considered an unknown because I had no history here.

These initial problems go away though, and over time I started to appreciate that the US had wonderful things to offer that I had not expected. One of these things, which I’d find hard to give up nowadays, is the incredible diversity of interesting people I have met socially and at work.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

A: I have a job that is the envy of many. In this job, I get to work with the best and brightest people from all disciplines, I get to work on drug projects that might one day substantially improve people’s health, and I still get to do completely academic research and publish high impact academic papers. I’m very grateful for having this job.

Q: How has the UNIBAS influenced you in your career path?

A: The University of Basel provided an outstanding education. I was inspired by wonderful teachers such as Werner Arber, Walter Gehring, and Gottfried Schatz, to name just a few. The most important person for my scientific career was my PhD advisor, Radek Skoda. He is one of the best scientists I have ever met (and I have met many great ones) and he taught me the scientific method with great passion and enthusiasm. I would not be where I am without him, and we are still good friends to this day.

Q: Why study at UNIBAS?

A: There is ample reason to study in Switzerland, whether at UNIBAS or at another institution. The scientific productivity of Switzerland is among the highest in the world, and in my mind that is because Swiss mentality emphasizes attention to detail, honesty, and perfection. These traits are very important in science.

Q: What does it mean to you to be a speaker here at swissnex San Francisco for this group of UNIBAS alumni and friends?

A: It is a great honor to be invited. I am more used to talking about my work than to talking about myself, but if anything I have experienced can be useful to other Swiss people, then I am glad to help.