March 2017

Megan Riley, PhD, MPS


Dr. Megan Riley earned her Ph.D in Biological Sciences from the University of South Carolina in 2015. During her time at the University of South Carolina, she studied the impact of climate change on species interactions and species distributions under the guidance of Dr. Blaine Griffen. After obtaining her Ph.D, Dr. Riley completed her Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree in Toxicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the fall of 2016, she joined GlaxoSmithKline as a member of the Future Leaders Program, an initiative at GSK designed to introduce promising recent advanced-degree graduates to the pharmaceutical industry. As part of the Future Leaders Program, Dr. Riley is currently serving as a Clinical Research & Development Epidemiologist.

Tell me how you became interested in toxicology

I’ve always been interested in the life sciences, so when I got to the University of Richmond, I decided to major in biology. After undergrad, a Ph.D program in biology seemed like the logical choice. However, while completing my dissertation work on how climate change impacts species interactions, I started learning about ecotoxicology. I began to realize that ecotoxicology, and toxicology in general, were my real passions. While finishing up my dissertation at USC, I started looking into programs that would allow me to apply my background in biology and my passion for toxicology in order to protect human health. I was initially interested in Master of Public Health programs, but when I came across the Professional Science Master’s program in toxicology (PSM) at UNC, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. I was really attracted to the strong toxicology coursework, the emphasis on real-world business skills that would apply directly to a career in industry, and the fact that UNC was located in the heart of the RTP, where I could gain exposure to industry, academia, and regulatory. I also really liked how the UNC PSM program allows students to take courses in the School of Medicine, School of Public Health, School of Pharmacy, and the Kenan-Flagler Business School!

What are you up to now?

This past fall, I joined GlaxoSmithKline through the Future Leaders Program for Vaccines Research & Development. The Future Leaders Program is an initiative at GSK designed to introduce individuals with advanced degrees in the biomedical fields to the pharmaceutical industry. It’s uniquely structured in that it is a two-year program that requires three rotations in vastly different fields within the vaccines industry. These rotations provide a broad overview of the vaccines business in a relatively short amount of time. The first rotation lasts one year, while the other two last for approximately 6 months. One of the most appealing aspects of the Future Leaders Program at GSK is that at least one of the three rotations must be completed abroad, which is really a great opportunity to see another part of the world and work with people from other cultures. GSK is the epitome of an international company (we have offices in over 100 countries), which is why they really stress the importance of an international rotation. The great thing about the international rotation is that you have quite a bit of say in where you want to go, as long as your rotation contributes to your professional development and is in line with business needs. My international rotation is still several months away, but I’m hoping to pursue opportunities in London or Brussels.

Currently, I’m in my first rotation, where I’m working as a Clinical Research & Development Epidemiologist at the GSK Vaccines US Research & Development Center in Rockville, Maryland. My group is responsible for designing and overseeing clinical trials for a vaccine candidate that is designed to be given to pregnant women in order to protect newborns from a disease that often occurs in early infancy. The concept is that maternal antibodies from vaccination will be transferred to the fetus through the placenta, thus providing protection to newborns. Maternal immunization is a novel approach with a lot of potential, and it is a very exciting project to be a part of!

My role in the program is to design and monitor epidemiology studies to ensure we have accurate epidemiological data to support the clinical trials. Background epidemiology data is important in the design of clinical trials and in the interpretation of potential safety signals or adverse events during the course of a trial.

How do the skills you gained through the PSM program apply to your current position?

Two of the most important skills that I refined through the PSM program and use every day at GSK are critical thinking and problem solving skills. I think UNC did a great job teaching these skills, and the great thing about them is that they’re relevant to any career path, not just ones in the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve also found the business skills taught through the PSM program to be especially helpful for many of my day-to-day tasks. Skills that were stressed in the PSM program that are especially useful in my current role also include oral presentation, project management, and professional communication skills.


What drew you towards industry?

I really liked the idea of working on something and be able to follow the project all the way through in order to see the results of my work. I enjoyed my time in academia, but I really felt like industry gave me a better opportunity to see the direct impact of my work. Additionally, by working in vaccines clinical development, you’re relatively close to the patient, and you’re able to put a face to the people you’re trying to help through your work.

I also really like the mix of science and business that the pharmaceutical industry offers. This interest in the intersection of science and business is what really drew me to the pharmaceutical industry, and before that, to the UNC PSM program in Toxicology.

What are your big hobbies in your free time?

Well, I just moved to Washington DC, so I’ve been spending much of my free time exploring the area, trying out new restaurants and seeing all of the sights in the city. I’ve been in the DC area for a few months now and I still keep finding great new restaurants! Other than that, I just try to get outside or go hiking as much as possible.

About the author: Brett is a third-year Ph.D student in the Curriculum in Toxicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He works in the laboratories of Dr. Michael Madden and Dr. Joachim Pleil where he is researching High Throughput Screening techniques. In his free time, he enjoys fly fishing, backpacking, and watching Carolina Basketball.