October 8, 2019 – A biostatistician who has helped bring numerous lifesaving drugs to market is the recipient of the 2019 Lagakos Distinguished Alumni Award.
The award, given to Fong Wang Clow, senior vice president and head of biometrics and data management at Pharmacyclics, recognizes extraordinary achievements of graduates from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics.
John Quackenbush, Henry Pickering Walcott Professor of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and chair of the Department of Biostatistics, presented the award at a ceremony on October 3 in a packed room at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center.
During his opening remarks, Quackenbush discussed the spirit of the award, which honors the career of Professor Stephen Lagakos, who passed away in 2009. “Those of us who knew Steve realized that he was more than a brilliant scientist. His compassion, brilliance, and generosity made him special,” Quackenbush said. “Steven believed that the most important aspect of his career was training the next generation of scientists. He aspired to see students go on to achieve great things.”
To that end, Quackenbush noted that Clow’s list of accomplishments is as long as it is impactful. She played a key role in getting U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for eleven different cancer and graft versus host disease (GvHD) drug applications, as well as the only drug approved for treating stroke. She has never been turned down on a new drug application to the FDA in her 30-year career. “She’s had an impact on the lives of tens of thousands of individuals,” Quackenbush said.
Clow, who attended the event with her family, delivered a lecture that traced her path from rural China to Harvard to the biotech industry. After high school, she said, she worked as a “barefoot doctor” and farmer in the Chinese countryside, planting and harvesting rice and other crops. She attended university in China, then taught statistics in medical school, and eventually won a World Bank scholarship to study overseas, which led her to Harvard. At Harvard, Clow earned an SM and ScD in biostatistics, before blazing a remarkable path in the biotech industry.
Clow said that achieving excellence often requires extraordinary commitment, emphasizing that her accomplishments were not easily won. She recalled the years-long effort of the NIH, and the need for excellence in her partnership with NIH, FDA and Genentech, to win approval of tPA, the only FDA-approved treatment for stroke. Clow and her team spent countless hours poring over data and working with regulators to expedite the approval process.
One of the final meetings for approval came just three days after Clow had a child. Rather than postpone it, Clow, knowing that any delay could result in patients losing their lives, jumped on a flight with her newborn and her husband. “During the advisory meeting, my husband carried my daughter outside, and I would come out of the meeting every two to three hours to feed her,” Clow said, adding, “It was a very successful meeting.” The drug was approved in 1996 and today it’s estimated that tPA has saved 25,600 lives and spared 96,800 stroke survivors from permanent disability.
“It was one of the most important drugs I ever worked on and it had the biggest impact on my life,” Clow told the audience. “Along the way I learned so much and gained so much respect for other people and their willingness to sacrifice.”
Former executives from Pharmacyclics, Robert Duggan and Maky Zanganeh, gave brief presentations in which they discussed how Clow’s work is proof that biostatistics can change the lives of patients. They commended Clow for never shying away from difficult work and urged students in the crowd to look to her as a model of ambition and determination.
Throughout her presentation, Clow attributed her many successes to the nurturing atmosphere she discovered at Harvard and the confidence the School provided her. “Confidence when speaking my own opinion. Confidence to make the impossible become possible. Confidence to strive towards achieving excellence,” she said. “And ultimately confidence to attempt to make the world better.”
photo: Kent Dayton