‘Series of Serendipitous Moments’

By Amy Blakely | Courtesy Photos

Renee Bailey Iacona and her boyfriend, Yomi Martins, dressed in traditional Nigerian clothing. Martins is from Nigeria.

Featured photo: Renee Bailey Iacona and her boyfriend, Yomi Martins, dressed in traditional Nigerian clothing. Martins is from Nigeria.

Serendipity.

It’s a word Renee Bailey Iacona uses repeatedly to describe her journey from being a first-generation college student at UT Martin to the front line of cancer drug research at one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

Iacona, now the vice president of oncology biometrics in oncology research and development at AstraZeneca, had only recently joined the leadership ranks a decade ago when she received UT Martin’s Outstanding Alumni Award and was invited to give the 2014 commencement address.

She used the opportunity to describe her “Never Say Never” story—how she seized opportunities that came her way, worked hard and found her passion. It’s a story that’s continued to write itself during the past nine years.

“My life has been a series of serendipitous moments,” she says.

Fighting Cancer

Iacona, who lives in Germantown, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., has worked at AstraZeneca for 22 years. In her current role, she oversees nearly 600 staff.

“I lead a department of statisticians, programmers and data scientists. We design clinical trials to test drugs for cancer,” she says. They analyze trial results and work with physicians, scientists and regulators to obtain approval for new drugs by regulators across the world, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“We just approved 30 new trials this year and have over 150 trials underway,” she says.

Those trials range from Phase I, the first tests on patients, to Phase III, final testing prior to FDA approval.

Iacona joined AstraZeneca when the pharmaceutical giant was in a heyday of developing hormonal treatments for breast and prostate cancer. She stuck with the company through the days when its oncology
research waned.

“The company has invested in me, in my own development. I’ve had great managers who pushed me and said, ‘You’re ready to do this’—even when I thought I wasn’t ready.”

Today she works closely with the CEO and senior executive team on an extensive drug portfolio across early and late oncology.

“There’s no better place for me to be right now,” she says. “I’m at my pinnacle in oncology—for statistics, anyway.”

She’s recently seen the development of a drug that virtually cures lung cancer in patients with a specific gene mutation and a breakthrough drug for previously hard-to-treat forms of breast cancer (triple negative).

It’s gratifying, she says, “to see these drugs make a difference for cancer patients who didn’t think they’d dance at their daughter’s wedding.”

The Road to Martin

Iacona was born and raised in Hendersonville. Growing up in Middle Tennessee, she had her sights set on attending Vanderbilt University.

The summer after her sophomore year of high school, she landed a spot in the Governor’s School for Humanities at UT Martin. She lived on campus in a residence hall for six weeks and studied Greek mythology. The next summer, she studied chemistry and biology at the Governor’s School for Sciences held at UT Knoxville.

As a high school senior, she applied to Vanderbilt and UT Martin. After a heart-to-heart talk with her parents about financial realities, she agreed to attend Martin, where she had been awarded scholarships to cover the full cost of her attendance.

“While at the time, it wasn’t what I wanted, it was the right thing,” she says.

She pledged Alpha Delta Pi sorority and found her home away from home. She remains active with sorority leadership on a national basis, having served as northern district team director since 2019.

During her sophomore year, she was offered a spot in UT Martin’s prestigious University Scholars program, which started her deeper path to studying science.

“Attending UT Martin meant I was a bigger fish in a small pond,” she says. “I think I thrived on that.”

When one door closes …

In high school, Iacona had earned straight As. When she got a C in organic chemistry as a sophomore at Martin, it made her second-guess her plan to be a doctor.

“It set me back. I thought, ‘What now?’”

She discovered her new passion while working on her honors thesis and doing research projects alongside her University Scholars advisor Jimmy Trentham, now a professor emeritus.

“He taught me about oncogenes, and I found it fascinating,” she says. Oncogenes are genes that have the potential to cause cancer.

After spending a year after graduation working as a nanny, she found a job as a lab tech at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Her interest in oncology grew, and she began thinking about attending grad school.

Serendipitously, Vanderbilt had just started ASPIRE, an interdisciplinary graduate program that allows students to explore a variety of science- and medical-based specialties. Iacona received a stipend that paid for the program and found her niche in breast-cancer research.

Renee Bailey Iacona
Renee Bailey Iacona

Wanting her to take additional statistics classes, her thesis committee also funded her enrollment in Vanderbilt’s new Master of Public Health program.

Iacona completed her Ph.D. in pathology in 1998 and her Master of Public Health in biostatistics in 1999.

After a short stint as a statistician and genetic analyst in the human genetics program at Vanderbilt University, Iacona was hired as an entry-level statistician at AstraZeneca and began working her way up the ladder.

“I love oncology,” she says. “I love knowing that I can have an impact on people’s lives. But now, having done it for 22 years, it’s also about setting a vision for my department, leading and inspiring others, and mentoring. I love to mentor younger versions of me, and I feel a pay-it forward concept.”

In addition to hands-on mentoring, she sponsors STEM scholarships through her sorority on a national level and sponsors scholarships for UT Martin students who serve in leadership positions in her sorority. Iacona also is a member of the UT Foundation Board.

Going Places

Renee Bailey Iacona, in white dress, in Nigeria.
Renee Bailey Iacona, in white dress, in Nigeria.

To say Iacona is going places is both figurative and literal.

A self-proclaimed world traveler, her 2023 schedule includes at least 28 trips for work and pleasure. She will visit Iceland, Poland, United Kingdom, Spain, Antigua, Nigeria, British Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic.

Renee Bailey Iacona's travels throughout the world include the salt flats in Bolivia
Renee Bailey Iacona’s travels throughout the world include the salt flats in Bolivia

Often, her travel partner is her boyfriend, Yomi Martins. They met online and have been dating for two years. He’s Nigerian, and together they’ve made several trips to Africa. When she accompanied him to Nigeria for his mother’s funeral, Iacona joined the other mourners in having special attire made from white lace fabric chosen by Martins’ mother before she died.

Renee Bailey riding all-terrain vehicles in Dubai (left) and visiting a mosque in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (right)
Renee Bailey riding all-terrain vehicles in Dubai (left) and visiting a mosque in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (right)

When she travels, Iacona purchases postcards. She adds them to a huge stash of greeting cards—funny, inspirational, even a few she classifies as inappropriate—and mails some each day to a revolving list of people that includes her mother, relatives, friends, co-workers, former co-workers, sorority sisters and acquaintances, old and new.

Card writing, a long-time habit, blossomed during the pandemic.

“I live alone, and it was my way of interacting with others,” she says. She hopes her cards bring an unexpected laugh or smile that brightens someone’s day.

If they do, it’s serendipity.