AYNUR HERMANN

In 1980, a young Aynur Hermann sat transfixed in front of the television at her home in Germany as Carl Sagan explored the bounds of the universe in the popular Cosmos: A Personal Voyage television series.

"I was completely hypnotized," she said. "I knew then that I could only work in science, and nothing else."

FROM A SMALL VILLAGE IN TURKEY

Born in Turkey, Aynur spent the first seven years of her life in the outskirts of Ankara with her parents and four siblings. Neither of her parents could read or write, and yet they strongly encouraged education for their children. In the Turkish custom at the time, however, expected roles for girls often clashed with Aynur's goals.

"As the oldest girl in my family, I felt I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. I had to push boundaries and break the mold."

Aynur recalls a happy childhood full of laughter and lazy hours outdoors. While not formally educated, Aynur's mother taught her children early about the wonders of nature — explaining on long walks in the woods how to identify edible mushrooms or odd plants. This innate sense of curiosity and desire to understand "why" became a part of her DNA. "We didn't have a lot of money when I grew up, so we didn't buy games, we made up our games. We were inventing all of the time."

A WORK ETHIC IS BORN

When Aynur was seven, her family moved to Germany to pursue new opportunities. Given her parents' lack of education, Aynur saw firsthand the importance of education in creating opportunity. "My mother let me come to her job at the factory and to watch her as a cleaning lady. This was very hard, physical work for her," Aynur said, pausing for a moment. "She taught me that life could be hard, but that if I studied and worked hard, I had the power to make it better."

TAKING A LEAP

Transitioning to a new school with a different language in a foreign country was a big change for Aynur, but it set the stage for a foundation of courage and confidence. From a very early age she was comforted by the universal language of math and numbers, and quickly became known as a "math whiz." With help from her older brother, she excelled in school, and ultimately gained a position as a Research Associate (RA) at Bayer at the very young age of 19.

At Bayer, Aynur was constantly challenged by her manager and mentor, Stefan. "I would ask a ton of questions, like why we had to use certain restriction enzymes. He would continually challenge me, drawing short strands of DNA and asking how I would cut them," she explains. Aynur learned with each assignment and was quickly improving her cloning skills.

"BUT THEN HE POINTED OUT THAT THERE IS ALWAYS MORE THAN ONE WAY TO GET TO ROME.

"That made me realize you have to look at each problem with different eyes. It is one of my greatest lessons, and one that I try to apply to my work and to my team, so that

"WE ALWAYS LOOK AT A PROBLEM FROM MULTIPLE ANGLES TO TRULY UNDERSTAND WHY."

Aynur credits Stefan, who continues to serve as a mentor, with many of her early achievements. "He opened the world of science for me and really planted the seed that I could go to college. I didn't initially think it was ever an option for me — a little girl from Turkey whose parents could not read or write? But he helped me to explore the unknown ... and I graduated, got my PhD, and now work at the greatest biotech company."

THE PATH TO IMMUNO-ONCOLOGY

In 2009, after completing her postdoc at the University of California at San Francisco, Aynur discovered Regeneron. "After years at Bayer, I missed the collegiate, team spirit that comes at a certain kind of company. I knew I wanted to work somewhere I could really make a difference." So she and her husband, Johannes — who met through a running club and share a passion for science, the outdoors and opera — headed east.

"WHEN I FOUND A POSITION AT REGENERON, I AGGRESSIVELY PURSUED IT. THIS IS A VERY UNIQUE PLACE."

Here, Aynur's work focuses on developing cell-based assays for screening and characterizing antibodies in order to identify the most promising therapeutic candidates for immuno-oncology targets. "We are trying to activate the immune system to combat cancer. Think of tumors escaping the immune system by creating a protective force field. We're exploring antibodies with the power to revive immune cells. We're taking down those force fields."

Taking out tumor force fields is no easy feat. Developing bioassays is complicated and takes great effort, as it requires lots of idea generation and troubleshooting. When an assay is established, Aynur and her team investigate hundreds of antibodies systematically.

"Sometimes, out of 500, we may only have one that is worth further exploration ... and sometimes none. But we are not a team that gives up easily. We learn from everything we do, analyzing the 'why' so we can address it head on."

An energetic person, Aynur loves to engage in dialogue. She is often found chatting with her team or her colleagues.

"I HATE EMAIL. Let's talk face-to-face. This is how I get new ideas, how I think, how I can help other people with their challenges. It's how we all do better work."

Aynur credits Regeneron's collegiate culture, problem-shattering attitude, and intense respect for science as key elements of her success. "I remember a few years ago, I didn't have a dedicated RA working with me, so my peers helped with their teams and with experiments so that my work could continue quickly. I often feel like a child on a playground. You ask for a toy and someone brings it to you. I have all the tools I need, and there is a consistent openness to trying new approaches."

Aynur aims to instill this strong sense of collaboration in her team: "My team is not a pair of hands — they think with me. I want them to know not just what happened but why it happened. If you know what you're doing, you can solve problems and have more fun doing it."

FROM SCIENCE TO MEDICINE

For Aynur, her work in immuno-oncology is not only stimulating, but also deeply personal; 15 years ago, her mother passed away from inoperable pancreatic cancer. "I understand what a family goes through when they are battling cancer and I'm not going to give up. A few years from now, I have no doubt that some of the antibodies we are working on will be used to treat cancer and help families just like mine. My mom wasn't saved, but if I have anything to say about it, someone else's will be."