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Vertex scientist Jeff Willy on importance of ‘bringing your full self to work’

In partnership with myGwork

By Dylan Mann-Hazell

Close up of a smiling man's face
Jeff Willy (Image: Provided)

Jeff Willy, a toxicologist, and the San Diego Research site safety lead at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, spoke to myGwork about his background and interest for science, and how it intersects with his passion for inclusion. Day by day, Jeff is making significant contributions to the biotech industry while advocating for diversity and embracing his identity.

Jeff’s journey toward becoming a toxicologist at Vertex is anything but conventional. His academic pursuits began in the world of music with a degree from the Eastman School of Music. However, an unexpected turn of events led him toward a career in science. After completing his bachelor’s degree in molecular genetics from the University of Rochester, Jeff decided to take a leap and accept an opportunity with a pharmaceutical company (where he simultaneously earned his PhD from Indiana University School of Medicine), trading his musical aspirations for a chance to make an impact in a scientific field.

Currently serving as a Senior Research Fellow in Toxicology at Vertex, Jeff is instrumental in ensuring the safety of investigational medicines throughout the drug development process. Collaborating with chemists, biologists, and interdisciplinary teams, he conducts experiments and plays a crucial role in the meticulous selection of molecules to prioritise patient safety. His work exemplifies the dedication and precision required in the ever-changing biotech industry.

As a gay man, Jeff’s journey towards embracing his identity was not without its challenges. Growing up in an environment with limited acceptance, he felt compelled to suppress his sexuality when returning to Indiana for work. However, after an enlightening conversation with a student, he realised he had an opportunity to provide a voice for the community.

“I haven’t met that many out scientists in the industry”

“I was at a conference talking to a graduate student, and I made some comment about my partner and used the pronoun ‘he’,” Jeff explained. “And this student just said ‘Oh, that’s so cool. I haven’t met that many out scientists in the industry.’ And I thought ‘Wow, I’m not — but I probably should be if I’m going to be a leader and mentor in the field.’ I shouldn’t be afraid to be who I am. That really started my journey.”

Recognising the need for change, Jeff sought an opportunity at Vertex, a company that prioritises inclusion, diversity, and equity. Within Vertex, Jeff found a supportive environment where he could bring his whole self to work. Drawing inspiration from his experiences, he became an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. By joining the Boston-based PRIDE employee resource network (ERN) and going on to co-found the San Diego PRIDE chapter at Vertex, Jeff took charge of his own path. Additionally, he pursued his creative interests by producing LGBTQ+ films centred around the coming out experience and sharing powerful stories that resonate with many in the community.

“I try to allow other people to be heard”

Portrait shot of a smiling man
“I started creating LGBTQ+ films for others on topics about coming out, and other stories that needed to be told” (Image: Provided)

“I started creating LGBTQ+ films for others on topics about coming out, and other stories that needed to be told,” said Jeff. “I’ve done a handful of small projects, and they’ve gone through to film festivals and won multiple accolades. By making them, I try to allow other people to be heard.”

Jeff’s impact extends beyond his role at Vertex. As the PRIDE ERN co-chair for San Diego, he leads a passionate community that has grown from a handful to over 50 active participants over the past five years. The San Diego PRIDE ERN chapter focuses on initiatives such as reverse mentoring with senior leaders, community outreach, and participating in events like Pride Parades and HIV advocacy walks. By creating safe spaces for open meetings and celebrations, Jeff and his team foster a sense of belonging and support for LGBTQ+ individuals within the Vertex community, and beyond.

Jeff recognises the progress made in the journey towards LGBTQ+ inclusion while acknowledging the work that still lies ahead. He believes in exercising patience to pave the way for meaningful change. Fortunately, Vertex is committed to fostering an inclusive environment, actively working on initiatives like self-identification programs to gather data-driven insights that will further drive progress.

“Vertex checks all the boxes”

“I was very thoughtful with what company I joined, and Vertex checks all the boxes,” he explained. “We’re passionate about science, everyone’s incredibly genuine, we walk the walk and talk the talk. All the way up to the senior leaders, we care about making sure you bring your full self to work if you choose to, whether it’s LGBTQ+, neurodiversity, your race or ethnicity – whichever parts of your identity you’re most proud of. Vertexians are 100 percent committed to this, which allows everyone to really focus on their jobs and bringing new medicines to patients.”

Through his role as a toxicologist at Vertex, Jeff not only contributes to scientific advancements but also champions inclusion and belonging, ensuring that LGBTQ+ individuals within the Vertex community have a safe space for support, education, and celebration. With leaders like Jeffrey, Vertex continues to pave the way for a more inclusive future in both science and society.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals is a proud partner of myGwork, the LGBTQ+ business community. Find out more about job opportunities at Vertex Pharmaceuticals.