Kenya to Indiana: Lessons From My Grandmother

As Lilly celebrates 140 years of making lives better this month, we’re highlighting stories from around the world of people who are helping create history. Today’s guest blog comes from George Njoroge, Ph.D., senior research fellow in Drug Discovery at Lilly.

G Njoroge LillyPad Feature Image_608x608Growing up in rural Kenya, I watched my grandmother, an herbal medicine doctor, use plants and other natural remedies to save patients’ lives. Her practice was highly regarded among the community, and as a young boy, the prospect of solving complex problems to help others inspired me to pursue a career in medical science. And now, as a senior research fellow at Lilly years later, I still attribute my fascination with drug discovery to my childhood years in Africa.

My journey began at Nairobi University in Kenya, where I received my bachelor’s degree in organic chemistry. I then took my studies to the United States, earning a Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in physical and synthetic organic chemistry, a field that led me to discovery of medicines. My first post-doc job was at Schering-Plough Research Institute, where I studied cancer and infectious diseases. There, I oversaw a team of chemists throughout the 16-year-long discovery of a first-in-class medicine for the treatment of hepatitis C. Once the drug was approved in 2011, a pivotal moment in my career, I took a look around and thought, “Okay, what’s next?”   

That may not seem like a natural reaction after being part of such an exciting discovery, but I was eager to take what I had learned from watching my grandmother and from my work at Schering-Plough and apply it to a new challenge, in a new environment.

There were several things about Lilly that sparked my interest as a prospective employee. First, it seemed CEO Dr. John Lechleiter was highly accessible, which can be unusual at large companies. Also, considering Dr. Lechleiter’s background as a chemist, he struck me as a leader who truly understood the science behind the complex drug discovery process. And for almost five years now, I’ve spent my time in drug discovery at Lilly getting close to and understanding the science behind the diseases. Collaboration and networking are particularly strong at Lilly. A tight-knit team of expert scientists meet weekly or more often to discuss potential research opportunities in oncology and other therapeutic areas. Lilly really empowers its employees to contribute their unique perspectives toward the discovery of new drugs that benefit patients, something that has allowed me to thrive here.  

A passion for drug discovery continues to run in the family. My daughter graduates this month with a degree in medicine and then moves to Illinois for her residency. Similarly, my son graduated with a biology degree and is currently a first-year PharmD student. He hopes to work at Lilly one day.

My grandmother had a strong passion to heal and harnessed the therapeutic properties of plants and herbs to help people. Nearly 60 years ago, Lilly discovered that vincristine, derived from the plant Madagascar periwinkle, was successful in destroying rapidly growing leukemia cells. Today, I use the knowledge gained from my grandmother, years of diverse experience and a supportive Lilly environment to further strengthen my roots and continue innovating to make lives better for people around the world.


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