Lisa Drakeman *88 salutes challenges and generations of Princetonians

Lisa Drakeman *88 holding Hilton Head Club box for oldest alum cane

Before entrepreneurship became a buzz word and before many realized their Ph.D. path needed a reboot, Lisa Drakeman *88 prepped Princeton graduate students on meeting both challenges.

Drakeman is a role model in those departments. Although she pursued her doctorate in the history of American religion and lectured at Princeton, her professional life skyrocketed when she employed the skills she honed in graduate school to running an international biotech firm.

She brought her broader perspective to the Graduate School, volunteering to help organize entrepreneurship workshops that led to Pathways with a Ph.D., a precursor to the GradFutures program.

Then co-chair of the Graduate School Leadership Council, she helped address a growing need among doctoral candidates to explore careers beyond academia as the job market tightened across many disciplines.

Now retired, Drakeman hopes to continue aiding this effort, only one of her many volunteer posts for Princeton. She currently serves on the advisory board for the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and heads the Princeton Club of Hilton Head. She’s also served as a P-rade marshal, Reunions panelist (she’ll offer a program on wine this year), and a board member of the Association for Princeton Graduate Alumni, among others.

How to get involved? “Find an activity that fits your interests… find something that you're passionate about, that intersects with what Princeton does or what you think Princeton should do.”

‘Learning to Learn’

Drakeman and her husband, Donald, another Princeton graduate alumnus of 1988, earned doctorates together while the couple raised two daughters. (The older daughter, Cynthia, is a Class of 2002 member.) Intramural swimming helped Drakeman make friends and balance academic work and family responsibilities.

She expected to follow a traditional trajectory. After their younger daughter started grade school, Drakeman joined her husband at Medarex, an American biopharmaceutical company based in Princeton, as the company’s vice president of business development. Then came an opportunity to start Genmab, focused on monoclonal antibodies. These antibodies can be coupled to a drug, a toxin, an isotope, or be used by themselves to target various receptors on tumor cells. Genmab’s Danish investor-founders asked Drakeman to leave Medarex to head the new firm.

“My academic work was, I think, crucial for my career,” Drakeman said. “It really helped me develop my analytical skills. [Biotechnology] requires a lot of learning new things. And that’s really the essence of a doctorate — learning to learn. So in that respect, it was a wonderful basis for everything I wanted to do later in life.”

Even so, Drakeman faced a steep learning curve. She handled regulatory issues, scientific issues and business issues. She found and pitched to investors. But her biggest challenge was “in biotech almost nothing works,” she said.

“Only one in 10 products makes it to clinical trials. And because almost nothing works, you really have to be smart. You have to give yourself more than one chance to succeed…. You have to convince people that their money is in good hands. And then you have to deliver.”  

Currently two products developed at Genmab during Drakeman’s tenure are on the market, and one of those also is being used for an autoimmune disease.

Observing her former field through the past pandemic year, Drakeman predicts a medical revolution. While mRNA technology has been around for a long time, the pandemic focused resources: “When I saw the mRNA vaccines succeed, I immediately said to my husband, ‘This is going to change everything’ … Now we have amazingly effective vaccines. I think we’ll see broader applications.”

New Prospects

With her many Genmab trips to Europe came many business dinners. When wine glasses were being filled, Drakeman demurred — until a revelatory moment sipping a glass of Jacques Prieur 1989 Montrachet: “I did not dislike wine. I just had not been drinking the right wine.”

When the Drakemans retired in 2010 to Hilton Head, South Carolina, she plunged into studying wine in earnest, becoming a certified sommelier and earning the expert level diploma in wines. She recently launched a website, Find Your Wine Style, and offers wine programs, including for her regional club.

As well as learning to appreciate wine on her travels, the European tradition of multi-generational gatherings impressed Drakeman. She tries to recreate that feeling with the local Princeton alumni club in Hilton Head, reinforced by a personal connection to the Class of 1935 that started when the Drakemans traveled to Reunions with Walter “Pete” Keenan III ’35 *36 — the oldest returning alumnus for P-rades in 2014 and 2015.

That led to Drakeman serving as that class’s secretary, becoming the class’s 80th Reunion chair and becoming an honorary class member. She proudly wears the jacket sent to her as a gift by the family of Hugh B. “Jim” Sweeny ’35.

A Reunions event honoring the Old Guard is one of the club’s biggest. A hand-carved case made by one of the club’s members holds an ebony cane with a silver tiger head, presented at every meeting (even virtually this year) to the oldest attendee from the oldest class.

“I learned from Princeton that you can respect and revere all the generations together,” Drakeman said. Even when May festivities are over, “We’re trying to create that Reunions feeling of people coming together, sharing something special across generations.”