A Chance on Love Leads to Successful Career for Stony Brook Chemistry Alum

Marcus Boehm ’88, PhD, and his wife, Kimberley Phillips Boehm, PhD, made a gift to support PhD fellowships for chemical biology graduate students.

Marcus Boehm will be the first to tell you that when he was looking at PhD programs in organic chemistry, he focused on the East Coast — to follow a girl. Many years later, that woman would become his wife. Boehm says that attending Stony Brook University was one of the best decisions he ever made, in addition to marrying Kimberley Phillips Boehm 29 years later.

As Boehm gets ready for the next chapter in his life — retirement — he’s reflecting on his career and how important his education was to all that he has accomplished. And he is ready to help others get a great education at Stony Brook, just like he did.

His experience at Stony Brook inspired Boehm to give back to the university. He and his wife believe in education, and they know college students need specific tools and skills they won’t gain in high school. “I think it’s important to have a college degree and, in some cases, a graduate degree for skilled areas that require specific training,” Boehm says. Their $1.5 million gift will support graduate students in the Chemical Biology Training Program by providing at least five PhD fellowships each year for the next six years.

“Marcus and Kimberley’s generosity will allow our chemistry graduate students to focus on their studies, preparing for leadership roles in teaching, research and service as the next generation of scholars, scientists and innovators,” says Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis. “I am grateful for the enduring commitment of alumni like Marcus that helps our university nurture diversity and collaboration and ensures that Stony Brook students can excel and achieve at the highest levels to realize their ambitions.”

After studying chemistry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Boehm looked at several graduate schools. But he says that when he went to Stony Brook University to meet the chemistry faculty, the decision was easy. “I clearly remember meeting Glenn Prestwich, a chemistry professor. And I remember it being a relatively young school at the time [in 1984],” he says. “I liked the novelty of a new school. And I loved that the campus was so close to the water — it reminded me of UCSD in that aspect.”

Once he got to Stony Brook, Boehm selected Prestwich as his adviser because he believed Prestwich was doing it all in terms of chemistry and biology. That match would shape his career and lead to a lifelong friendship. As a Stony Brook student, Boehm enjoyed the quiet space away from the hustle of New York City. He created a lifestyle that focused on his work in the lab. And he believes that because Stony Brook encouraged concentration and focus, he was able to earn his PhD in four years.

“There were some absolutely magnificent faculty in organic chemistry, people at the top of their game, and they made time for their students. They truly cared.” – Marcus Boehm

Boehm says he was still determining his career path when he arrived as a graduate student. All he knew was that most of the people he worked with at Scripps, between UCSD and Stony Brook, were successful organic chemists. He stayed in chemistry because he knew it would lead to other opportunities, which Stony Brook would help provide. “Stony Brook was a place that offered me the opportunity to learn organic chemistry properly,” he says.

Boehm says that his relationship with Prestwich also led to his postdoctoral studies under Koji Nakanishi at Columbia University. “Between Stony Brook and then Columbia,” says Boehm, “these universities just opened all the doors for me in the biotech world.”

After interviewing with big pharma companies, Boehm knew he wasn’t suited for the corporate world. He also knew that he didn’t want to go into academia. In 1991, he jumped at the chance to move back to the West Coast when he received an offer from a San Diego startup. Boehm believes he got the job thanks to his connections with Prestwich and Nakanishi. “I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened if I had attended school somewhere else other than Stony Brook, because it would have been a different lineage of people,” he says.

Since that first door opened, Boehm has led a successful career as a biotech entrepreneur. While at the startup Ligand Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, he oversaw initiatives that led to the discovery of Targretin, a treatment for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. He then was a founding member of Conforma Therapeutics and led a team in developing treatments for solid tumors. Next, he co-founded Receptos Inc., where he was the chief technology officer, and helped develop ozanimod, which treats multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis. Currently, he is the co-founder and executive adviser of Escient Pharmaceuticals. The entrepreneur has over 100 patents and publications focused on oncology, autoimmune diseases and metabolic diseases.

Boehm says what’s most rewarding is hearing from patients about how the drugs he helped discover saved them. “You can create a powder in a bottle,” he says, “and the next thing you know, people are talking about how it changed their lives and they can live normally again. That’s huge.”

Boehm and his wife care deeply about giving back, making a difference, and providing opportunities for students to grow. The two met and started dating as students at UCSD, and looked into graduate schools together on the East Coast. They went their separate ways when Marcus attended Stony Brook and Kimberley attended Yale University. They reconnected 29 years later, setting a first date on the Brooklyn Bridge, and married in 2014.

Donors Marcus Boehm '88, PhD, and his wife, Kimberley Phillips Boehm, PhD
From left to right: Kimberley Phillips Boehm, Marcus Boehm ’88 (Photo courtesy of Stony Brook Advancement)

Boehm explains that they both prioritize putting their resources into institutions that they know and have a connection to. “I’m happy to put my resources into Stony Brook because I know what a difference it made for me,” says Boehm.

“Alumni engagement is a valued and critical component of the culture at Stony Brook University,” adds President McInnis. “The dedication and support of alumni such as Marcus and others like him who have a special connection with the university have a life-changing impact on the academic and career trajectories of current and future students. We could not do this work without their support.”

In addition to their philanthropic gifts, the couple participate in Reality Changers, an organization that helps high school students become first-generation college graduates through mentoring and other resources. “Helping these kids become the first in their families to go to college creates a path for their families, especially their younger siblings,” Boehm says. “Opening doors and showing people the way really makes a difference in the world. By us helping people, we’re, in turn, helping the world.”

-Christine McGrath

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