Joanna Tong blazes a trail for women in biotech and chemical engineering

Joanna Tong ● Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager ● Genentech

Joanna Tong ● Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager ● Genentech

For many of us, medicine is the sought after solution for a cold, flu, or allergy. It can be the promise of a cure or a healthier lifestyle. For Joanna Tong, medicine is much more than that. It is the opportunity to make an immediate and tangible impact on the lives of those overcoming chronic illnesses. As the Senior Technical Manager for Genentech, Joanna is primarily focused on the overall quality of the medicine, its production, and its ability to be transported to different companies.

As a young student, Joanna enjoyed biology and genetics, and considered becoming a biologist early in her career. While studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was exploring different paths that aligned with her ambitions, when a professor recommended chemical engineering. After taking a few classes in the field, she grew to like the discipline because it empowered her to think outside of the box.

“In school, I did traditional lab work, however I found it more interesting to utilize technical problem-solving skills that are involved with engineering.”

Joanna put her skills to the test when she began interning at Genentech, over 10 years ago. Genentech gave Joanna the chance to dip her foot into the biotech and pharmaceutical worlds and allowed her to realize how much she loved the work she was doing.

“When I say that I help ensure we make high-quality medicines for patients, most people don’t realize that the medicine we make is quite different and much more complex than the pills you would see at your local pharmacy. Most of the medicines Genentech makes are proteins that are delivered via an IV infusion at a hospital, and those proteins are made by live cells that we grow in giant bioreactors. You have to control for and understand so many variables to keep the cells happy and producing the protein you want. It’s an incredibly complex process.”

Joanna spent most of her career as a Manufacturing Engineer, which plays an essential role in Genentech’s production of high-quality drugs. The complex drugs could aid those with serious medical conditions such as colon cancer, lung cancer, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis. One of the many important part of that role was making sure that the medicine-producing cells were effective and safe. Now, as a Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager, Joanna’s tasks are less focused on the manufacturing process and more on collaborating with suppliers.

“I work with the suppliers that give us the ingredients and equipment we use to make our medicines. It’s important to partner with them because if we don’t have good starting materials, it’s hard to have good quality come out the other side.”

As one of the only girls in advanced math and science classes early in her educational career, Joanna understands what it is like to be a minority in a technical field. Because of this, and in addition to her job, she now serves as the Regional Lead for Pharma Technical Operations Women Professionals at Genentech. Through this organization, she develops programs and organizes monthly events that help over 1000 women in the Pharma Technical Operations in the Southern San Francisco organization accomplish their career objectives while building the company’s pipeline of future leaders.

“I think opportunities for women in STEM are already changing and increasing. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked for a lot of amazing women leaders. It helps to have role models and mentors.”