I Heart My Science Career! An Interview with a Cancer Vaccine Researcher

By Kathy Reeves
19 July, 2017


When I was in the classroom, one of my favorite Biology topics to teach was molecular genetics. If I were choosing a career path today, biotechnology would he high on my list. Today’s interview with a scientist illustrates how the fascinating study of DNA can be applied to the fight against cancer. Meghan Gentilini is conducting valuable, cutting-edge research in the race for a cure for cancer.

Scientific Minds: What is your current job title and where do you work?

Meghan Gentilini: I am a Research Staff Scientist II - Project Manager for Cancer Therapeutic Vaccine and Production Manager for Direct pDNA Vaccine

I work for Morphogenesis Inc, a clinical stage biotechnology company developing cell and gene therapies to treat disease such as cancer and diabetes.

SM: Tell us a little bit about your childhood.

MG: I grew up in Ithaca, NY, which is located about five hours north of NYC. Since a young age I had an interest in animals and nature. This manifested in my desire to read as many books as possible about different animals, domestic and wild, and an entire environmental encyclopedia series. I spent many summers in Nova Scotia, Canada on the shoreline playing in a diverse natural playground of tide pools, wild fields and mountain terrain full of a variety of plants and animals. From an early age I wanted to be a veterinarian.

In high school biology class I had my first exposure to forensic science, cell biology, genetics and cancer biology through classroom lectures and hands-on laboratory demonstrations put on by Cornell University students and professors. My exploration into biological sciences continued in a non-traditional collegiate level academic program offered to High School Seniors called New Visions. Students accepted into this program acquire knowledge and experience through independent and cooperative learning both in the classroom and in a professional work setting. My specific program concentration was Life Sciences. During my studies I explored a wide variety of careers and hands-on experience in plant science, experimental design, ecosystem sustainability, evolution, agriculture, and medical rotations in medical centers at Cornell University Veterinary School and Syracuse Zoo.

During my time in this program I was recommended to study at Shoals Marine Laboratory located on Appledore Island off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. This institution is dedicated to undergraduate education and research in marine science with hands-on educational experience in the field.  The Marine Environmental Science college level course explored the coastal marine habitats and ecosystems and tools scientists use to study them.

SM: What is your education background? What degree(s) or training did you receive?

MG: I have earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Professional Science Master (PSM) in Biotechnology. The PSM degree is also known as the MBA of Science. It is a masters program geared toward preparing scientists to work in industry rather than academics. Industrial positions in biotechnology require not only an understanding of scientific principles and methods but also an understanding of patent law, business, quality systems and regulatory bodies.

I have specific training in veterinary medicine, research methods, analytical testing of bituminous materials such as asphalt, molecular medicine, immunotherapy, biologics development and vaccine manufacturing.

SM: What inspired you to choose your college major?

MG: I chose the college major of Biology at the time because I wanted to go to veterinary school and felt this would give me a good foundation for the doctorate program.

SM: What has been your career path since you completed your degree (first degree if more than one)?

MG: While earning my bachelor’s degree I worked at a veterinary hospital. During this time I realized I was not as interested in performing and administering medicine; rather I wanted to understand what was behind the medicine, i.e. treatments etc. This led me to look for a job in a research lab. Due to my lack of direct biological research experience, I found it hard to qualify for any entry-level positions, so I took a job “outside the box” in a bituminous technology quality control laboratory, a.k.a. an asphalt testing lab. Throughout my time at this lab I became proficient in analytical technical skills and experimental design as it relates to quality of products.

At some point I realized I would have a hard time pursuing biological research without direct experience. I looked into multiple PhD programs but was informed politely by the advisors that I did not have enough direct research experience. Although I felt discouraged, I continued to pursue information on different masters programs and eventually found multiple masters programs offered in the Molecular Medicine Department of the Medical School at University of South Florida. I spoke to a couple of advisors about my goals and inspirations and was recommended to the Professional Science Program in Biotechnology. Part of the completion of this program was participating in an internship in industry, which led me to my current company, Morphogenesis Inc.

SM: Have you made any changes in your original career path? If so, why?

MG: Yes, absolutely. As you can see above my career path has taken many different unanticipated turns. From a very young age I wanted to be a veterinarian, and it was not until I actually worked in the field that I realized that career path was not right for me.

SM: What, if any, additional training have you completed in order to meet the qualifications for your current job?

MG: My PSM degree was essential for qualifying for my current position. I may have been able to obtain a job as a research scientist with any biological science masters, however the PSM degree has made me a dynamic candidate in biotechnology. Meaning I can span not only research, but also business aspects of a biotechnology company such as IP, regulation, development and quality management.

SM: How did you find your current job? What job-hunting resources did you use?

MG: My current position was offered to me by Morphogenesis Inc after I completed my internship at the firm. Because they are a small, privately-funded company, there was a gap between my internship and being offered a position due to funding needs. During this gap I volunteered at Morphogenesis Inc and also pursued other opportunities all over the country. I utilized BioSpace, Indeed, BioFlorida, and LinkedIn to find and apply to open opportunities.

SM: Describe a typical day at work.

MG: Let me start out by saying in a small rapidly-growing biotechnology company there is never a typical day. Due to the demands from internal and external stakeholders, priorities can change by the hour. One thing I do every day is evaluate my current priorities and tasks and make sure they are still aligning with the company goals. On any given day I may be in the lab developing procedures, working on new formulations for products, collaborating with third party researchers, having meetings with a regulatory agency, helping plan and file for human clinical trials or designing a bioprocessing facility.

SM: What parts of your job do you enjoy the most?

MG: As stated above, every day is different depending on the priority of the day or week. This makes the job exciting and allows me to try new things and be involved in many different projects. I also enjoy contributing my efforts and knowledge towards potential treatments for disease that affect so many all over the world.

SM: What parts of your job do you enjoy the least?

MG: One of the most challenging parts of my job is limited funding. There is a constant battle of what is the best we can do with the resources we have at the moment.

SM: What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

MG: The coolest project I have worked on was coordinating a USDA sanctioned clinical trial treatment for horse melanoma. I enjoyed this project because I was involved in all different aspects of it, including the development and manufacturing of the drug product, helping design and evaluate the clinical protocol, doing on-site data verification and meetings with the veterinaries at the horse facilities and data analysis and submission of data to the regulatory body for licensure.

SM: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

MG: I enjoy being outside, being active and traveling. Specifically I enjoy running, biking, yoga and trying new adventure sports such as hang gliding, adventure racing, endurance relay racing, white water rafting and more! I have had the amazing opportunity to travel to Australia and New Zealand and in the future hope to travel to other parts of the World, spanning all 7 continents.

SM: What career advice do you think high schools and colleges should be giving students?

MG: My advice would be to have goals but keep an open mind. I have found that as I experienced different subjects and careers I figured out what I did not enjoy and also learned about paths I did not even know existed. Also, think outside the box. Every experience that I have had seemingly related or not, such as working in an asphalt lab, have translated into skills that help me every day in my current position.

SM: What advice do you have for students considering a career in the sciences?

MG: Don’t get caught up in the cookie cutter approach to a certain bachelor’s degree in so many years to then go to a master’s degree and then to a specific career. I believe a career path should be fluid, and although you can strive to certain goals and aspirations, always remember to roll with the punches and find the solutions and silver linings.

SM: Do you have any additional comments?

MG: Remember to make and maintain relationships. Network, listen and be kind to others. You never know when an obscure interaction may lead to a job or a new career idea or an eye-opening conversation.

Is there a science career you would like to learn more about? Leave us a comment, and we'll plan an interview!

The "I Heart My Science Career" Blog Goals – To highlight someone working in a science-related field so that students may learn the following:

1. There are abundant and diverse career opportunities that are not typically presented to them as science careers.

2. People just like them, with similar backgrounds, are working in these jobs.

3. Careers often take exciting paths that couldn’t have been predicted when choosing a science major or graduating with a specific degree in science. The world of science is ever-changing, and so are jobs that involve science.




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