Alumni Profiles Series: Meghan Blackledge
Dr. Meghan Blackledge is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at High Point University. She is a 2005 graduate of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she double majored in biological chemistry and English. She received her Ph.D. from Duke in 2011, studying bioorganic chemistry under Dr. Dewey McCafferty. After her time at Duke, Meghan pursued a postdoc at North Carolina State University under Dr. Christian Melander. In 2014, she joined the faculty at High Point, where she runs a research lab and serves as a co-Director for the Natural Science Fellows program.
Tell me about your journey from the time you left Duke to where you are now.
After I finished my Ph.D. at Duke, I did a postdoc at North Carolina State University and then joined the faculty at High Point University. I wanted to stay in North Carolina because my husband is an attorney and they’re not very movable. I always thought that I wanted to be a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), so during my postdoc I kept my eye out for positions in the area. In the second year of my postdoc, there were four PUIs hiring in North Carolina. I ended up interviewing at High Point in January 2014, just five weeks after giving birth to my second daughter. I began at High Point in August of 2014.
What made you want to be a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution?
Before graduate school, I came from a small liberal arts college. I entered college as a biology major, but I had an amazing organic chemistry professor. This professor really opened up the world to me. I found new and interesting ways to think about chemistry and found that I enjoyed thinking about the world that way. It was the small class environment and the close, personal relationships with professors that really changed the trajectory for me.
These relationships last longer than your four years of college. Towards the end of my Ph.D., I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue a career in research. I was considering a wide variety of non-traditional career options. At that point, my undergraduate advisor encouraged me to pursue a postdoc to determine whether my feelings were due to fatigue or from a true desire to step away from the bench.
Tell me about your current job. What does a typical day look like (pre- and post-COVID)?
At High Point, we have a fairly high teaching load, usually with three to four courses a semester. We are also expected to have a research lab and to engage undergraduates in that research. Even though my lab is entirely undergraduates, we are still expected to produce high-quality, sustainable research projects. In addition to teaching and research, we are expected to be involved in service to our department, our students, and the university as a whole. Depending on the day, I may run from one class to another or I may spend more time in the lab to meet with my students. Being at a PUI, I don’t have graduate students or postdocs, so I am responsible for many of the administrative tasks involved in running a lab, such as ordering reagents. Think about the typical things you do as a part of your research day as a graduate student and then add teaching, service, and meeting with students. You have to be able to either switch tasks very quickly or block out time to focus on specific tasks.
Before COVID, I always had my office door open. I loved when my students would stop by, plop down in the chair, and tell me all about their personal lives. I love an overshare. I want to know about everyone’s moms, boyfriends, girlfriends, and everything else. I love that personal connection. Now entering the fall semester with COVID, I’m definitely going to miss telling students to drop into my office at any time. I’m going to have to find creative ways to replicate those experiences, such as walking to Starbucks together and drinking coffee six feet apart. It will have to be a lot less impromptu. Nothing is simple or easy anymore. I like to do a lot of active learning and group work in my classes so I’m working on ways to engage my students while also staying socially distanced. I want to give the students a good experience, but also a safe experience.
What are the most important skills for success in your job?
Communication is very important. Some chemists feel that they don’t need strong written or oral communication skills to succeed. They are very wrong. You will not be a very successful scientist if you cannot sell your science both orally and in writing. I would also recommend building your network early. Utilize your advisor’s connections. It’s amazing how often people will be willing to help you because they had a positive relationship with your Ph.D. or postdoc advisor. They assume that if they have a good relationship with your old boss they can have a positive relationship with you as well. This still happens, even though I have my own academic lab. Those networks are very valuable.
Do you have any interesting projects or professional plans in the near future?
I just got tenure, so that’s a deep sigh of relief on a number of levels! Last summer, we had an NIH grant funded, which is also very exciting. With this grant, we are investigating small molecules that can potentiate existing antibiotics in resistant bacteria. We hope to cut off bacterial resistance mechanisms to make resistant bacteria susceptible to antibiotics again. We have a few classes of small molecules that we are studying for this purpose. In addition, I recently started working as a co-director for our Natural Science Fellows program at High Point. This program is composed of undergraduate scientists from chemistry, biochemistry, physics, biology, and neuroscience. Together, these students participate in research, outreach, and social activities. I have been brought on to enhance the experience for our juniors and seniors.
What advice would you give a current Duke graduate student who wants to pursue your career path?
Pursue a postdoc before applying to faculty positions. At lot of PUIs are now requiring postdocs. Coming into a chemistry department at a PUI, you may be the only organic chemist, or the only biochemist, or the only expert in your branch of chemistry. You almost certainly won’t have anyone else in your specific field. You may or may not have anyone down the hall to bounce ideas off of. This, again, is where your network is very important. I still have a group message with my friends from the McCafferty Lab at Duke where we help each other brainstorm and troubleshoot. I do the same thing with my colleagues from my postdoc. I found that my postdoc also reenergized me and confirmed my desire to stay in research as a professor. Plus, you will experience a new university with a brand-new set of resources and opportunities.
I would also tell you to take every opportunity you can to be involved in teaching. This goes beyond being a teaching assistant in a lab. The Preparing Future Faculty program and Certificate in College Teaching are great. Duke has a lot of great professional development seminars and workshops that I wish I had attended more frequently. Learn about different teaching styles. Learn about new active learning strategies. You will have to find your own teaching style. Graduate school is a good, low-stakes time to find your style. When interviewing for a position at a PUI, discussing how you have explored, adjusted, and improved your teaching style proves to the search committee that you have valued your previous teaching experiences and consider teaching a priority.
Duke Chemistry also has fantastic teaching faculty. Talk to them about how they have developed their curricula and laboratory courses. Informational interviews with professors at PUIs are another a great way to gain more information. There are a wide range of expectations at PUIs. Some have higher teaching responsibilities, while others still place a very large emphasis on research, almost like an R1 institution. High Point falls in the middle of this scale.
Who were the most influential people throughout your Duke experience?
That’s easy. That’s the McCafferty Lab. It was a great place to learn and a great place to grow up as a scientist. I still have photos in my office from all of our antics. We decided to have a Friday where we all wore puffy vests to tease Dewey [McCafferty], who always had a puffy vest. We went around campus in our puffy vests and took a bunch of pictures and made him a calendar. Dewey would also take us to El Rodeo on Fridays for all-you-can-eat chips and salsa.
Duke Chemistry as a whole is a great place to be. I recently came back for Homecoming and saw Kathy Franz and Steve Craig who were so excited to see a former student and hear about my work at High Point. It’s just such a great environment of people who genuinely care about you. I feel like I’ll always have a home in Duke Chemistry. There are always folks in your corner who are willing to help when you meet a fork in the road.
Ph.D. student, Chemistry
Taylor Outlaw is a second-year graduate student in the chemistry department. She uses organic chemistry and chemical biology to study Chlamydia trachomatis in the McCafferty Lab. In her free time, she enjoys theatre, dance, and coaching cheerleading at the North Carolina School of Science and Math.