OBSERVATIONS Dan Lewis Intense Connection


The Salk Institute has been fortunate over the course of its history to have an extraordinary Board of Trustees deeply committed to advancing the Institute’s life-changing scientific mission. But few trustees have had a connection as intensely personal as new Board Chair Dan Lewis, who knows firsthand that cures, indeed, begin with Salk. Thanks to the research of Salk Professor Tony Hunter, the drug Gleevec was born. And thanks to Gleevec, Lewis survived leukemia.

A former president of Booz Allen Hamilton with a distinguished career in management consulting, Lewis has lent his support to the Salk for more than 15 years. Having joined Salk’s International Council (now the Salk Institute Council) in 2002, he was elected to the Board in 2012, the same year he and his wife, Martina, established the Daniel and Martina Lewis Chair at the Institute, currently held by Salk Professor Geoffrey Wahl.

Described as precisely the right leader at precisely the right time, Lewis has brought a personal passion, a global perspective and extensive business acumen to the role of Chair as the Institute charts an exciting course forward. A former leader on the World Economic Forum’s Aviation, Travel and Tourism Board of Governors, the La Jolla resident has been a frequent lecturer and author on the topic of air transportation strategy and policy, and the environment. And while most of his professional career has focused on aviation, he’s most at home on the water—sportfishing the deep blue ocean to catch and release marlin as large as 500 to 700 pounds.

Inside Salk sat down with Lewis to discuss his growing support for Salk over the years and what he envisions for the future of the Institute.

Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to Salk in 2002?

One of my mentors at Booz Allen Hamilton, who joined the firm in 1950, was visiting with me on my deck at home and said: “You know, eventually you will not be President of Booz Allen Hamilton. You will have to come back to La Jolla and you need to do something really important.” He pointed over the cliffs and said, “It’s right over there.” It was the Salk Institute.

Having long been an admirer and supporter of the Institute, in 2002 I joined the Salk Institute Council [formerly the International Council]. Today, as then, it’s a very useful and productive organization designed to bring people from around the world closer to Salk and leverage philanthropic efforts. Once I got closer to retirement, then–Board Chair Irwin Jacobs and former President Bill Brody asked me to join the Board. This experience has given me a front-row seat to the world’s most astonishing scientific discoveries that are truly life-changing. It’s also helped to infuse a great passion for this remarkable place. I’ve watched in awe the steady flow of groundbreaking discoveries emerging from Salk laboratories, knowing that each has the potential to impact the lives of millions of people for the better. To know I am a part of that is incredibly gratifying.

Martina and Dan Lewis

Speaking of groundbreaking discoveries, in 2006, a cancer diagnosis connected you to the Salk Institute in a much more personal way. Can you speak a bit about your diagnosis and treatment of leukemia?

In 2006, I was diagnosed, to my great surprise, with chronic myeloid leukemia, called CML for short. That leukemia had typically been a three-year death sentence. But thanks to a drug called Gleevec, I am still here today.

I discovered that some of the foundational research that led to Gleevec was done at Salk by Tony Hunter. He uncovered a category of inhibitors called tyrosine kinase inhibitors and that was one of the keys to developing the medical treatment Gleevec, which gave patients a way to live with CML. This is a very personal and tangible example of how basic research into cancer can lead to entirely new kinds of treatments.

While we do very little translational medicine at the Salk, without the knowledge of how biological mechanisms work, there would be no translational medicine. There wouldn’t be ways to go from here to there. Gleevec is a perfect example. Tony wasn’t investigating cancer when he made his discovery into tyrosine kinase inhibitors. But the discoveries that he and others made in this area led to one of the most successful cancer drugs in the world. This is the great potential of doing the hard work that Salk, and other institutions like ours, do.

During your 32-year career at Booz Allen Hamilton, you developed an impressive track record of leading multidisciplinary teams in transformation efforts, especially in the aerospace industry. What are some impressions from those experiences that you carry with you today?

The first 22 years at Booz Allen Hamilton, I learned my trade and became a senior client officer working with the aviation industry. Broadly speaking, this included interfacing with everyone from the people who made parts, to the airplane builders, to the airlines that flew them, and to the service providers that provided booking systems programs, like Expedia. I immensely enjoyed that work. After 22 years, I was elected to become president of the firm. From that period of time, I worked with 183 partners and 34 offices worldwide, and I was part of the global management consulting business for Booz Allen Hamilton. I’ve had the pleasure of working for some of the very largest firms in the aviation industry, both airlines and aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing. Interestingly, I think there are strong correlations between the Salk Institute and Boeing. Salk has the most remarkable scientists on the planet and their groundbreaking discoveries are becoming an almost daily occurrence. Similarly, Boeing has some of the most fantastic engineers in the world. They developed aircraft and technologies that were unparalleled in their day, from the 747 all the way up to the aircraft that they have today, the 787 and the new 777. It’s thrilling to be part of organizations that are creating the future.

Following up on that, are there parallels between how you supported Boeing engineers back then to how you support Salk scientists now?

Absolutely. It takes about seven to 10 years to design an aircraft before it gets to the manufacturing floor. At Salk, we also have a long lead time. The scientists here make new discoveries every day that take us a little bit closer to solving some of the most pressing issues facing humanity. This is foundational research. This is basic research. It’s the mechanisms that have to change in order to really resolve chronic illnesses that affect all of humankind. But it takes time, and it takes doing everything possible to support the scientists with the resources and tools they need to make those discoveries.

Salk has a long history of collaborating across disciplines and it’s part of the free-flowing way in which science works best. That was also true at Boeing. It wasn’t everyone gathered around a drawing board. It was a lot more about making many different components work together so that you could take an airplane from design to production.

That focus on collaboration seems very complementary to Salk’s ethos. Would you agree?

Yes. Salk is a very collaborative place and that’s what makes science work. It’s not always focused on an individual lab and an individual problem. When you can’t get that problem solved, you take it to other places and have other people look at it. A classic example of that is Tony Hunter, who has helped Ronald Evans on cutting-edge pancreatic cancer work. Ron had the original scientific discoveries related to mechanisms in pancreatic cancer and he asked Tony to look at his work. Tony looked at it very differently and I think they’re making great progress. This is an example of life-changing collaborations.

A lot of organizations talk about collaborating, but it seems like Salk does it well. Why do you think that is?

I think there are a lot of little intangibles that contribute to it. For one, the Salk is inspirational. It’s wide open. The scientists can walk out of their lab and meet and talk in the middle of the Institute’s courtyard. It’s a reinforcing environment that contributes immensely. It’s something that you see every day when you walk through the Salk. The other component of success is the people that are drawn here. They truly love this place and they want it to work. They want it to work well. They want to be collaborative and they want to be good stewards of our donors’ money. For that money, we want to deliver a truly tremendous value proposition.

As you have been involved with Salk a long time, what would you say makes the Institute unique?

Salk is a scientific treasure. The campus also is an architectural masterpiece; that in and of itself is an inspiration. Louis Kahn’s building and Jonas Salk’s vision of what this place should be have been celebrated over and over again. What Salk has is an environment that is conducive to doing this kind of very detailed, very difficult foundational research. Support for this type of institute is absolutely critical because it takes a lot of resources to do this work. It takes specialized equipment. It takes very specialized people. It takes very specialized processes to make these discoveries happen.

When you aren’t advising on boards, you have a pretty serious marlin fishing hobby. How did that come about?

The work as a management consultant allowed time for a single hobby. I chose sportfishing. This hobby allowed me to completely get away from airplanes, travel and work, at least for little while. I have a boat in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and fish as often as I can. I also fish the tournaments, particularly the world-famous Bisbee tournaments. We took the biggest purse in 2014, which happened to be the year that Hurricane Odile hit. The hurricane was terrible, so we raised money to support people who live there to rebuild their homes, which had been completely destroyed.

What is the biggest marlin you ever caught?

A 762-pound blue marlin. Too bad it wasn’t for a tournament.

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