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Beating Childhood Lymphoma, Bruin Chemical Engineer Works in Biotech Helping Develop Cancer Drugs


Connor Thompson

Courtesy of Connor Thompson

Jan 19, 2024

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Connor Thompson ’15 grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Los Altos. His earliest days were spent attending school and having fun on the field with his friends at baseball and soccer practice, until his life took an unexpected turn at 12.

What started out as swelling on his shin that Thompson chalked up to a soccer injury turned out to be a malignant tumor — non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks part of a person’s immune system.

Doctors started Thompson on chemotherapy immediately. Determined to keep his life as normal as possible, Thompson managed to keep up with his schoolwork and only had a few absences despite having lost his hair and needing to use crutches.

“It was a scary experience, being so young and unfamiliar at that point in my life with serious medical interventions,” Thompson recalled. “But I found that there was a huge amount of support in the pediatric oncology field, and a growing number of cutting-edge therapies, such that I could feel cared for and comfortable through the treatment.” 

Fortunately, Thompson went into remission after nine weeks of chemotherapy and has remained cancer-free to this day. But he will never forget what it’s like experiencing firsthand the impact of a cancer diagnosis on a child’s life.

“As I recovered from the experience and went through high school, I was looking for ways that I could use my own talents to make an impact in the field of health care,” Thompson recollected. 

Today, Thompson is a principal engineer at Genentech, a biotech company in South San Francisco, California, which develops medicines for serious and life-threatening diseases. The company has received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for multiple drugs that treat the same childhood cancer Thompson once had.

“I feel so grateful to have found a career that aligns my intellectual and scientific interests with a mission I am passionate about — delivering medicines for patients,” Thompson said.

Growing up, Thompson was inspired by his parents — with his father having studied engineering and his mother working in finance. He was always interested in science and attended science and nature camps in the summer. In high school, he enjoyed math and science courses, especially AP chemistry. When it came time to apply for college, Thompson said he felt that engineering would be the right fit where he could pursue his interests while having impact in the field of health care.

“UCLA prepared me very well for my career in biotech,” Connor Thompson said. “The chemical engineering curriculum helped me build a strong theoretical foundation, while the upper division concentration in biomolecular engineering gave me specific hands-on exposure to protein expression, purification and analysis.”

“I applied to UCLA first because of its world-class academic reputation. I knew I would be challenged by the coursework and well-prepared for a career in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” Thompson said. “I also thought that the large and diverse student population meant there would be plenty of opportunities to broaden my horizons and have new experiences.”

Accepted to UCLA as a Regents Scholar, Thompson first saw the campus while attending the Overnight Stay Program organized by the Regents Scholar Society at UCLA. Impressed by intelligent yet approachable students and the multifaceted campus community, he decided to become a Bruin.

With his career goal to pursue jobs in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology field, Thompson chose to major in chemical engineering with a biomolecular focus. He also wanted to take advantage of the extensive UC Education Abroad Program, so he doubled up on challenging math and engineering courses, freeing up his third-year fall quarter to study abroad in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. Some of his favorite memories included hiking through the Scottish Highlands.

“My experience abroad solidified my love of traveling,” Thompson said. “I became more at ease in new and unfamiliar situations, and have a better sense of the wide and diverse world we live in.”

Aside from his academic pursuits, Thompson said he had some of his favorite college experiences being involved in UCLA Radio and the UCLA Ski and Snowboard Team, commonly called the UCLA Snowteam. He got to share his love of music with friends and spend time in the station hosting live shows with eclectic themes, such as one called “Cosmos,” where monologues from the astronomer Carl Sagan were played over electronic and ambient music. With the UCLA Snowteam, he made close friends with fellow snow enthusiasts while going on trips to Mammoth Mountain and racing against other schools. 

During the summer before his senior year, Thompson started an internship at PSC Biotech, working at a plasma processing facility in Southern California. The experience confirmed his interest in biotech, especially in research and development roles, and helped prepare him for an internship at Genentech, where he had wanted to work since he was a freshman.

At the end of his six-month Genentech internship, Thompson was accepted to the company’s process development rotational program. There, he gained experience in different facets of the drug development pipeline, while building his network and learning how to tackle fast-paced projects and deliver results effectively. At the end of that program, Thompson got a job on the company’s purification process-development team, where he still works today.

As a principal engineer, Thompson supports the development of purification processes — such as chromatography and filtration — for antibodies and antibody-like molecules undergoing clinical trials. He also supports optimization and validation of the purification process as these molecules progress to later-stage trials, liaising with health authorities for drug approval and ultimately transferring the process to commercial manufacturing facilities.

“UCLA prepared me very well for my career in biotech,” Thompson said. “The chemical engineering curriculum helped me build a strong theoretical foundation, while the upper division concentration in biomolecular engineering gave me specific hands-on exposure to protein expression, purification and analysis.”

A proud Bruin alumnus, Thompson helped recruit talent at UCLA for Genentech’s pharmaceutical technical development division. For six years in a row, he traveled to campus and attended virtual meetings, hosting info sessions and interviewing candidates for scholarships and internship opportunities.

During these visits, Thompson shared his advice on how to develop a career like his. “Pursue your passions and interests first and foremost,” Thompson said. “The most successful employees are the ones that are driven by more than just clocking in and out each day, but are passionate and interested in the projects to which they contribute.”

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