Melissa McDonnell


Where to find her:

You can see Melissa in this video! She’s the fourth woman in science spotlighted.


  • Penn State, BS Bioengineering, Minor: Math, 2006
  • Penn State, MS Systems Engineering, 2011

Current Job Title: Associate Product Director, Standard and Commercial Testing

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I liked math and science in high school, and a guidance counselor recommended I consider engineering when looking at colleges.  During a college visit, I learned that engineers help people solve problems and bioengineers help solve health problems and make people’s lives better.  During that visit, I decided I wanted to pursue bioengineering and started looking for schools that offered bioengineering as a major. Since graduating, I have worked in a variety of roles for companies that make medical devices, medicines, and diagnostic kits that provide medical test results.  I always have a clear understanding of how my work positively affects patient heath, which keeps me interested in and motivated at work.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

As an incoming college freshman, I joined the Penn State Women in Engineering Program (WEP), which provided access to engineering mentors and panel discussions throughout the semester.  The mentors in this program inspired me throughout college and were excellent resources to field my questions since they had successfully navigated situations I was going through. One of the panel discussions at a WEP meeting was about “navigating the career fair” and senior engineering students shared their tips for attending the Penn State career fair to find co-operative education assignment (co-op), internship and full-time opportunities.  

I was inspired by the panelists because I wanted to get a co-op position, which is a short-term work experience for college students, just as they had.  As a sophomore, I attended the Penn State career fair and connected with a recruiter who was involved in WEP when she attended Penn State. Through this new connection I got a co-op job at Johnson and Johnson, which led to a full-time job at the same company!  I started creating my network in college and continue to add connections with every new work experience. When I am inspired by leaders where I work, I set-up time to introduce myself and ask them questions about their career if I am interested in a similar path.  I consider them mentors and include them in my network I reach out to for career advice.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

One of the first classes in my major was especially challenging for me.  I thought I was going to fail the class and have to repeat it! I remember reaching out to one of my mentors from the Penn State Women in Engineering Program for advice and she assured me that everyone has a class they think they are going to fail at some point.  Her advice was to ensure the professor knew how hard I was trying by attending office hours, asking questions, joining a study group, etc. At the end of the day, I passed the class and was never happier to move on! Having a resource who could help me know that others were in the same boat gave me motivation and a strategy to get through the difficult class.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

When I was a sophomore in college, I attended the Penn State career fair and received an offer for a co-operative education position (co-op) at Johnson & Johnson that would take me away from school for 8 months and delay my graduation by one semester.  I always thought I would graduate in 4 years and felt unprepared to leave campus as a sophomore. After discussing the opportunity and logistics with my counselor and mentors, I decided to take the co-op. That position set me up for a second co-op and ultimately a full-time position in a highly competitive program at Johnson & Johnson.  It was an unexpected opportunity with a very positive outcome!

About 5 years into my career, I took a new opportunity as a contractor, which means I was a consultant and not a full-time employee of the company.  I always expected I would work in full-time positions, however I found many contractor positions posted that interested me. When I received an offer for one, I evaluated the benefits and decided to take the position.  I was surprised that I enjoyed many aspects of working as a contractor. I worked on a special project to support a regulatory submission for a re-use prevention medical device that aimed to make drug delivery safer in specific global regions.  As the duration of my contract ended, I lined up another contractor position at a different company and worked on a project to expedite product launch for a spinal implant. I saw real advantages in working as a contractor especially when I wanted to see if I liked a job or company before making a full-time commitment.

Both of these experiences were not in my “plan” and taught me to consider all opportunities and be open minded about untraditional paths if they align with my goals.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

At some companies there are internal groups, similar to clubs in college, that you can participate in such as an activities committee that plans fun events for the company.  I was involved in the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Johnson & Johnson and led community service events and plan networking receptions.

There are also opportunities to participate in industry events with special meaning to you.  For example, I am passionate about gender equality in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and often represent my company at related industry group meetings like Women in Bio, Penn State Women in Engineering Program, and STEM-UP Network.

Another option is to take on development assignments in areas that interest you.  I had the opportunity to lead a Continuous Improvement department where I wrote advertisements, designed webpages, and directed fun educational videos for the site.

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Find mentors who can be resources when you have questions.  It’s especially helpful if they are “a few steps ahead” on a similar path as you.

Follow your interests and strengths as you consider opportunities during college and in your career.  Your interests will change as you gain experience, and that’s OK!  

When you start to apply to jobs: customize your resume to each job, write cover letters and use Spell Check!

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