Developing Cancer Drugs

Joy Mendez ’99 recalls some quality mother–daughter time she had in high school: sharing chemistry notes. “At the time I was taking high school chemistry, it just so happened that my mom was taking first-year university chemistry,” she says. “When I had questions, she and I would talk about it.” Those family study sessions paid off. While her mother began doing medical coding for a large surgical practice, Mendez followed her passion for chemistry throughout her education and excelled at it, graduating magna cum laude from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1994 and from UF’s graduate chemistry program in 1999. A fellowship with a venture capital firm investing in pharmaceutical development sparked her interest in the field. Now, after more than 15 years working in drug research and development, Mendez is the head of marketing at Bavarian Nordic, a Danish oncological pharmaceuticals company that uses live-virus vaccines to treat cancer.

As an international executive, she’s had to navigate the journey from childhood passion to academic humility. “I had a really excellent high school chemistry teacher who inspired me and encouraged me, since she could see I showed quite a bit more interest in the science than the other kids in the class,” she says. When she arrived at UF for graduate work, herself a mother at that time, she found another excellent teacher who had a different approach. “My professor, Dave Richardson, really challenged me, and it was to make me better,” she says. “It served me well because since then, I have never had a position that did not come with high expectations and high pressure, and I have always been able to manage them successfully.”

Indeed, Mendez has excelled in a pressure-cooker industry. She has served as director on multiple cancer treatment drug development projects in the U.S., Germany, Spain, and, of course, Denmark, always with the competitive and quickly shifting market in mind. Leading these projects required her to draw connections among disciplines, learn new languages — German, Spanish, and Danish — and sales skills, and, most of all, say “yes.” Describing her achievements, Mendez says she’s learned to stay up to date on the science and embrace “every interesting opportunity to learn and try something new.” She adds, “These competencies were fostered at UF, and I am so pleased that I made the choice to go there.”