Tomi Sawyer began his career as a drug hunter by achieving the near impossible. As a graduate student at the University of Arizona, he invented a molecule that ultimately became a drug approved to treat a rare but debilitating disease affecting skin pigmentation.
The odds of finding a drug that helps anybody are small. By some accounts, a medical chemist can expect their work to result in a marketable drug less than 1 percent of the time.
Sawyer, a 1976 graduate of MSUM, has been part of such discoveries twice. The second was a drug designed to treat a rare cancer. Sawyer led the team that developed it.
“That’s what has driven me as a scientist: Giving hope a reality,” he says. We’re all hoping to do something good. In my case that means I want to make a good medicine that will make a difference.”
Sawyer has held research and development roles in leading biotechnology companies. He retired in 2019 from Merck Research Laboratories where he was a distinguished scientist and part of peptide drug discovery and innovative technologies.
In retirement, he continues to make his mark in the field as a consultant and mentor.
“My message to students and post-docs and industrial scientists is similar: embrace what is in front of you. It may not be where you end up, but to advance in your career, achieve and succeed in whatever that step is,” he says.
Sawyer grew up on his grandfather’s farm near Greenbush, Minn. The house had electricity, but no indoor plumbing. The family chopped wood to heat the rooms. It was here that he learned the value of hard work and the comfort of academic pursuits.
He went on to study chemistry at MSUM and expected to attend medical school. He enjoyed the academic life, but recognized quickly that he needed more than intellect to succeed.
“I looked in the mirror and decided I had to change who I was,” he says.
As an introvert, he identified with the all-intellect-no-emotion Spock in Star Trek. But he decided that he needed strong relationships to truly thrive and worked to expand his social circles.
He became a student advisor for chemistry and the pre-health professions programs. He became a residence hall assistant and president of the residence hall staff council. By his senior year, he had made hundreds of friends.
“My experience at MSUM was transformative. It’s where it all took place for me,” he says. “I realized that everybody needs other people.”
During his career, Sawyer is credited with more than 500 scientific publications, patents and presentations. But mentoring countless young scientists ranks at the top of his career highlights.
“I try to bring out the best in people and make them stronger, give them confidence,” he says.
He continues to make that a priority as he eases into retirement. He has begun writing legacy letters to his sons, both of whom are in doctoral programs. So far, he’s completed 150. He hopes to finish 1,000.
He’s also in the process of establishing three entities that support, respectively, consulting, future peptide drug discoveries, and connections between faith and science.
During his time at MSUM and as a drug hunter, Sawyer says he has made mistakes. As in any career worth pursuing, there have been ups and downs. But if he can help someone else claim success, he’ll consider his work effective.
“Thanks to luck and effort or luck and design, it all comes together,” he says.
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