Alumni Profiles Series: Heather Megosh
Dr. Heather Megosh received her Ph.D. in Pharmacology with a certification in Toxicology in 2006. Her thesis work at Duke focused on investigating the role of small RNA-mediated pathways in the regulation of germline stem cell development in the laboratory of Dr. Haifan Lin. After Duke she joined McKinsey and Company where she has worked as: a consultant serving clients in the pharmaceutical industry and the public and social sectors; the manager of the Global Public Health practice; and currently the Global Learning and People Manager for the Public and Social Sector Practice.
How did you end up at Duke for your graduate studies?
As an undergraduate biology major at Harvard University, I fully anticipated going on to get a Ph.D. in the basic sciences but I really didn’t know which one or how I would decide. So after Harvard I taught high school, an experience that made me realize how much I loved teaching and how much I enjoyed thinking about how to engage people in the lifetime pursuit of learning. I then decided to go back to graduate school with the intention of studying pharmacology to become a forensic toxicologist. This goal came about as a result of my masters studies with a forensic toxicologist who ran a private lab in my hometown outside of Philadelphia. I wanted to be at an institution that was well known for medical pharmacology and that also had a toxicology program. Duke checked all my boxes on excellence and academics, and it also felt like a familial atmosphere of people who were happy to be there. It just seemed like a place where I was going to enjoy learning.
What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Duke?
The best thing about Duke is the same thing that drew me to Duke in the beginning: the people that I was lucky enough to get to work with and play with. Some of my life-long friends are people whom I worked in the lab with and enjoyed lunch conversations with at the LSRC for four years. I also fondly remember “PharmProm”: the Pharmacology program had an annual department retreat that was capped off by the re-creation of a high school formal dance. I also loved playing beach volleyball outside the Nanaline Research Building.
What were some of your professional career plans and how did they evolve as you approached graduation?
I never fully entertained the idea of becoming an academic researcher for a couple of reasons. Having had the experience of teaching high school, I knew that I valued broad exposure to people/ topics and being able to see near-term impacts of my work which don’t always fit into the lifestyle and professional trajectory of an academic researcher. My advisor, Haifan Lin, was very supportive of me, and even though his life passion was studying PIWI proteins, he understood and accepted that my priorities differed. He never made me feel pressured to follow in his footsteps. I respected that and it is partly why I joined his lab.
The McKinsey opportunity came about a bit serendipitously: I was playing volleyball outside Nanaline one day and a lightning storm started, so we went inside. Lo and behold, McKinsey was in there doing a recruiting event with free pizza. It actually turns out that the person giving the presentation that day is now someone with whom I work directly. He was talking about the impact that McKinsey has had in the social sector on global health, and all of sudden a light bulb went off in my mind. I thought, “Oh my goodness, I am looking for something where you can see real impact on people’s lives in the short term!” and I got very excited about the possibility of becoming involved with McKinsey.
I had friends from college who were consultants but, honestly, I did not know exactly what that meant. This was the third year in my program so I thought, “Let me just apply to McKinsey, since that would help me understand what the business actually is.” I went through the interview process and was very much supported by a Ph.D. student in the Fuqua School of Business. This was before they had consulting groups on campus, so we were just a bunch of misfit scientists applying to McKinsey; this colleague at Fuqua offered to coach us on how to do case studies and think through business problems. After getting the job offer, I decided to take the McKinsey position as a sort of “business postdoc” with the plan of later going back to do forensic toxicology. I thought I would stay at McKinsey for a year or two and now it’s been 12 years, which has to be one of the longest postdocs ever!
What were some of the challenges you encountered during your transition from academia to consulting?
The most challenging thing was the pace. In graduate school you are working hard but you are working toward a deadline that is four plus years away. The pace of impact in a consulting job is by the hour, so I had to quickly scale up my turnover time. It was also essential for me to understand that although scientific training is very helpful in providing a foundation in rigor and logic for your work, you have to become comfortable with ambiguity in consulting. Sometimes as both a scientist and a consultant it can be tricky to balance those two things. As a scientist, if I am not 100% certain about something I am not going to write it down or rely on that assumption, whereas in consulting it is often about pattern recognition and decisions need to sometimes be made without being able to fully “prove” a hypothesis is correct. Learning the new business and consulting lingo was also challenging.
What has your career path/progression looked like at McKinsey?
One of the things you hear when joining McKinsey is the idea of “making your own McKinsey,” which is very much encouraged and expected. The Firm encourages its employees to find out what keeps you excited and what makes you want to stay at McKinsey. I chose to first focus on building on the skills that I learned at Duke, so for me this meant working in pharma because I understood drug design and I understood the basic science. I knew close to nothing about business initially, but we were being hired for our technical expertise so I felt comfortable relying on that base while I worked on building up my business acumen.
That worked well for me for the first year as I began to understand what it meant to be a consultant. I started getting comfortable working on pharma studies but I missed my social sector roots. I loved being a teacher; I have always been passionate about equality of rights in health, education and the economic development of people around the world so I wanted to do more work in those areas. I joined our social sector office as a fellow and was primarily focused on secondary and higher education and global health.
Then I had three children in quick succession and as much as I loved consulting I wanted to transition to a role where I could still be motivated, challenged and excited about work but do it in a way that felt sustainable for my family. I moved away from direct client-facing work to manage our global public health practice, which was focused on helping to eradicate disease and improve vaccine access, among other things. I did that for about four years and then a new opportunity came along to shape the learning and development of our consultants focused on serving the public and social sectors. I have found the experience very rewarding as a return to my love of teaching, and it has allowed me to have a flexible home life while also traveling the world 10-20% of my time.
What is your favorite thing about what you currently do in job at McKinsey?
My favorite thing about what I do now is the opportunity to meet my global colleagues around the Firm and to learn about the impact that we are having globally. Right after this interview is over I have to get on the phone with a colleague who is an obstetrician working in our Lagos office in Nigeria who has worked on a project focusing on reducing maternal mortality rates. I would have not met her in my hometown, but the fact that my role is global and I have the privilege of working with incredible people around the world to have a positive impact on citizen’s lives is extremely rewarding.
Do you have any advice you would like to share with current graduate students at Duke?
The best career advice I like to give out is not to plan too far ahead. Don’t worry about what your job is going to be or what is going to happen in five years because as long as you keep positioning yourself well by meeting people, going to good schools, and working for highly regarded organizations, you have positioned yourself well for whatever opportunities might come your way. You don’t have to have the full roadmap worked out. I am 43 years old and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. My mantra has been keep doing what you are doing if you are having fun and feeling fulfilled. So far this has made me really happy. Life is too short to worry about these longish-term plans. I think that as long as you are personally fulfilled and the things that drive you are being delivered by your job then all will work out fine. The key is identifying what is important to your value system and then finding a job that aligns with it.
Tinashe Edward Nyanhete
Ph.D. candidate, Immunology
Tinashe Nyanhete is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Immunology program. He studies cellular and humoral immune responses to natural HIV-1 infection in a unique group of HIV-1 patients that have the natural ability to control HIV-1 infection without any form of therapy to better understand what constitutes an effective immune response against HIV-1. This information will be vital in the design of successful HIV-1 vaccines that can trigger an effective immune response against HIV-1 virus infection.