Medicine Man

Joe Lubach

Joe Lubach ’02 takes a break from his science career to hike in Yosemite.

Summer research opportunities, a faculty mentor and a Central family legacy all contributed to Joe Lubach’s career choice as a scientist. Lubach ’02 is a third-generation Central graduate, preceded by grandparents, aunts and his parents (Rose ’72 and Bill ’72).

Lubach entered Central with the sciences in mind but no set career path. When he couldn’t decide between a biology or a chemistry major, he chose to double major (while also playing baseball), with the possibility of medical school or graduate school in his future.

Then came organic chemistry, which for many is a deterrent. Lubach, however, found that he enjoyed that subfield of chemistry as he studied the structure and reactions of organic compounds and materials.

With the help of Central adviser Dan Bruss, former chemistry professor, Lubach sought summer research opportunities to help him sort career options in STEM fields. Bruss connected Lubach with a fellow chemist and researcher at the University of Kansas, where Lubach spent a summer and determined he “preferred research and the interdisciplinary nature of lab work” to pursuing medical school.

“Dan Bruss was a big reason that I went to grad school,” Lubach says. In 2007, he earned a doctorate in pharmaceutical chemistry at Kansas, and two weeks after defending his dissertation, Lubach began work at Genentech, one of the world’s leading biotech companies, based in South San Francisco.

Self-described as a “plain old scientist,” Lubach works in the Small Molecule Pharmaceutical Sciences department within Genentech Research & Early Development.

“Essentially our department takes molecules and makes them into medicines,” he says. “We formulate the raw active drug material into a safe and efficacious drug product, like a tablet or capsule. For instance, we determine how to get the drug to dissolve and get to where it needs to go in the body to hit its target. We also figure out what ingredients to put with it to help keep it stable throughout its shelf-life.”

Lubach’s research is focused mainly on oncology drugs, although he has also worked on drugs for immune system disorders and ocular diseases. He finds the work rewarding but points out that “you have to be able to accept failure,” as “greater than 99 percent of molecules we work with won’t make it to the market.”

“You can’t take it personally,” he says. “While that specific molecule may not help someone, the work is not lost, as the knowledge gained may help the next molecule succeed.”

Knowing his work is helping people is why he got into the pharmaceutical field in the first place.

“This is a very patient-focused business. We’re trying to do what is ultimately best for patients,” Lubach says. “It’s hard to see sometimes, when you are working with white powders in the lab, but there are pictures of actual patients hanging throughout our workplace to remind us of the importance of our work.”

“I came into this field not knowing anything about it, so my advice to students would be, don’t be afraid to explore a science career,” he says. “I think you’ll find it very rewarding, as I do. I would recommend doing multiple summer research projects to find out if you like the lab and the research process. Some scientists don’t, and many have the opportunity to get out of the lab early in their careers. I spend about half of my time in the lab, and the rest is spent processing data, preparing presentations and meeting with other scientists from around the company.”

Lubach also appreciates that Genentech gives back a great deal in the Bay Area community. “San Francisco is one of the hotspots for the pharmaceutical industry with lots of startups here,” he says. The company also provides sabbaticals to scientists every six years, which is a great benefit. An outdoor enthusiast, Lubach hopes that an upcoming sabbatical will involve, instead of the periodic table indoors, another set of elements in the open air of California near Half Moon Bay, where he and his wife Reyna currently reside.

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