Joseph Tarnowski, PhD, has led a successful career since graduating from the College of Graduate Health Sciences in 1979. Now, as he prepares to retire in November, he is dedicated to helping students achieve their own success.
Dr. Tarnowski’s decades-long career in the biopharmaceutical industry began essentially as a back-up plan. Before attending UTHSC, where he received his doctoral degree in biochemistry, he aspired to become a medical doctor, inspired by his family doctor whom he admired. But, while completing his undergraduate degree at Southeast Missouri State University, Dr. Tarnowski met his future mentor, Edsel T. Bucovaz, PhD, a biochemistry professor who was on a recruiting trip for UTHSC.
“Dr. Bucovaz was speaking about the graduate programs, and I said, you know, that’s maybe something I should do, because at that time the odds of getting into medical school were not in my favor,” Dr. Tarnowski said. “I was really inspired by hearing Dr. Bucovaz speak, and I wanted to do my graduate work as part of an integrated biomedical sciences program, so I chose the (then) University of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences over others I was considering.”
Dr. Tarnowski received a teaching fellowship from the university, which paid his tuition and gave him a small stipend for teaching classes while he was there. After graduating, he became a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey, where he learned how the pharmaceutical industrialization process worked. Seeing how medicines are developed from a concept to a drug solidified Dr. Tarnowski’s decision to work in the industry rather than being an academician.
Over the next few decades, he worked in senior positions at a handful of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. He joined GSK, formerly GlaxoSmithKline, in 2010, first as its senior vice president of Biopharm Chemistry, Manufacturing, and Controls (CMC) R&D, and then as senior vice president to build innovative Cell and Gene Therapy CMC Platforms in 2016. Over the course of his career, he has held critical roles in the manufacturing, process development, registration, and launch of several FDA and internationally approved human therapeutic products including Roferon® A, Alpheron N®, Fiblast® Spray, CEPRATE® SC Stem Cell Concentration System, Natrecor®, Erbitux®, Orencia®, Yervoy®, Nulojix®, Eperzan®/Tanzeum®, Nucala®, and Strimvelis®. He holds about a dozen patents and several patent applications for biologic products, the first of which was granted when he was a graduate student in Dr. Bocuvaz’s laboratory.
With all those achievements under his belt, Dr. Tarnowski began reflecting on his life and his career, and he decided to begin sharing his good fortune with the next generation of scientists.
“It was challenging being a graduate student. You were one step away from being impoverished,” Dr. Tarnowski said. “At the time, being in science was a male-dominated profession, and I witnessed women in programs who struggled with figuring out how to advance their careers with pressures and concerns for getting married and raising a family.”
In 2004, Dr. Tarnowski and his wife Deborah, who worked as a research associate in the 1970s with Leonard Share, PhD, in UTHSC’s physiology labs, established two scholarships for students in the College of Graduate Health Sciences. One, the Edsel T. Bucovaz Endowment, is a general scholarship for students of biomedical sciences. The other, the Tarnowski Family Endowment, is awarded to women who are pursuing a career in science.
“I would not have achieved today had I not had the guidance, the mentorship, and the opportunities UTHSC provided. I got a free education, had a great mentor, have had a great career, and so that is why I made the decision with my wife to give back,” he said.
Since setting up those scholarships, Dr. Tarnowski has made other generous gifts, including a recent donation to support the launch of a student research program. Some of those gifts were matched with funds from the GSK Foundation’s matching gifts program. He has also given back more than just monetarily. He has connected the College of Graduate Health Sciences with GSK so the company could provide the college with equipment it no longer uses. The company has also hosted students at its research center in Pennsylvania, showing them around the labs and providing them with important industry connections. Connections were made with Diversity Talent leaders so future graduates may consider working for GSK in part for the values. Other connections were made with the Dental, Medical, and Pharmacy schools with clinical development programs and the consumer health care division, which is now called Haleon.
Dr. Tarnowski also serves on the College of Graduate Health Sciences Advisory Board, providing guidance on issues of importance to the trainees and faculty in the college. He has visited the college and held discussions with the students and scholars to share his experiences and provide guidance to them. Dr. Tarnowski’s support stems from the hope that more people will enter the scientific field, in either an academic career or an industry career.
“An academic career is good, vital, and important, but I also want students to know there’s also incredible science going on in industry,” he said. “We do discovery research all the way through development to find new medicines trying to establish genetic linkage to causation of disease. So, there’s incredible knowledge and data and powerful science going on now that wasn’t available decades ago, and I want to make sure that I’m an advocate for that.”
This story was initially published in the Spring 2023 issue of Graduate Health Sciences Magazine.