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Immigrant, Doctor, Entrepreneur: Mathai Mammen’s Border-Crossing Scientific Odyssey Immigrant, Doctor, Entrepreneur: Mathai Mammen’s Border-Crossing Scientific Odyssey

o two leaders on our team are quite the same at Johnson & Johnson, and you’ll see that diversity reflected throughout our org chart, from bottom to top. Mathai Mammen, Executive Vice President, Pharmaceuticals, R&D, is a case in point. Hear three reflections from his remarkable journey for insights that might help you find your own path.


Humble Beginnings

Born in India, Mathai moved to Canada with his parents as a child. The experience is still etched in his mind today.

For example, Mathai quickly learned English with a child’s linguistic virtuosity. But as he recounted, “I watched my parents struggle. They had accents and didn't quite speak English in the same way, and I was upset by that.”

Over time, Mathai came to see that language itself—a vehicle of connection—sometimes served to exclude, erecting barriers and demarcating insiders from outsiders.

Of his mother, a medical researcher at a local university, Mathai remembered “this extraordinarily bright person who was enabling literally hundreds of grad students’ and postdocs’ careers without ever getting the traction she was capable of, or the credit and recognition she deserved. It’s something I was aware of even as a kid growing up.”

Mathai views his role as a leader today through the prism of those experiences.

“I'm very sensitive to diversity, equity and inclusion, partially because of my own background and upbringing. I think one of the most remarkable things about Johnson & Johnson is that you’ll find this complete agnosticism toward your background: your educational background, your gender, your skin color, your culture, your language, your religion, anything. I think this sense of inclusion has helped attract such an extraordinary community of data scientists to our company."

He added, "You will feel comfortable here being your authentic self."


Building a Company From Scratch

What makes Mathai, one of our top global R&D leaders, so unique? Where even to begin?

There’s his educational background, for starters—solid proof that when Mathai says “learning never ends,” he means it. Mathai earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School, followed by a Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard with George Whitesides.

At this point, Mathai's story takes a dramatic turn: While conducting his doctoral research, Mathai begins to explore if leveraging the symmetry in biological systems might allow for genuinely new approaches to drug discovery. And the answer turns out to be yes.

So significant were Mathai's findings, in fact, that he left the academic path he was on to start a company in the Bay Area.

“I remember how much time I spent building and developing that company, and really working to ensure it would be successful,” Mathai said. Which it was, generating five brand-new medicines that are still in use today—and continue to change people's lives.

Inventing. Impacting patients. Ushering “ideas written on scraps of paper or debated over beers” into real-world applications. Obviously, this was an exciting time for Mathai. Indeed, you could hardly script a more promising start for a young physician-scientist.

But Mathai’s true ambitions lay elsewhere and were broader still.

“I wanted to expand the scope of everything I was doing,” he recalled, “because at the end of the day, the only thing that inspires me is the difference that I can make in patients’ lives.”

The same aspiration for impact at scale would ultimately lead Mathai to become a champion of data science within Janssen R&D and across Johnson & Johnson at large.


Crossing Borders (Again): “Bilingual” in Data Science

Mathai’s experience as an immigrant probably factors into one of his favorite analogies: being bilingual in data science. It's an analogy which casts speaking more than one tongue, not to mention crossing borders, in a powerful new light.

But what does Mathai mean by ”bilingual," exactly?

He put it like this: “Being bilingual in data science means having an area of primary domain expertise—sort of like a ‘mother tongue’—together with an area of secondary domain expertise, which is almost like a language that you picked up somewhere along the way.”

In Mathai’s case, medicine and chemistry would be "mother tongues," and data science a lexicon he acquired later on.

He believes this kind of dexterity is essential to our mission to change the story of health for humanity at Johnson & Johnson—and the only way we can make impact at that kind of scale.

As Mathai explained, “The bilingual individual is able to effectively hop back and forth between disciplines, which is key, because you can't impact things in the same way if you don’t speak the languages of the people you're trying to influence. You need to be able to understand and talk to the scientist, the physician, the regulatory expert, the person in manufacturing, everyone who’s involved from end to end.”

However, if you aren’t a polyglot yourself quite yet, not to worry. As Mathai pointed out, “Johnson & Johnson is the ideal environment for you to pick that up."

Join Our Community of Data Scientists Today!

Uncertain about taking on bold new challenges and being challenged to grow in this way? That's perfectly understandable, of course, but Mathai has some advice for you as well. "Trust in your convictions," he said. "Believe that the things you think are true are true. And most of all, believe in yourself. You can do this. Go for it!”

With that in mind, be sure to check out the openings we have in data science at Janssen R&D right now, as well as all of the data science roles we're hiring for across Johnson & Johnson.

Finally, before you go, why not sign up for our Global Talent Hub, too? It's a great way to stay in touch, learn more about life at Johnson & Johnson and even get updates about jobs that might interest you in the future.

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