Jackie O’Neil



  • BSc, Chemistry, Northeastern University, 2010
  • MSc, Chemistry, Northeastern University, 2010

Current Job Title: Associate Director, External Manufacturing

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

I really loved high school biology and chemistry, but my primary passion is (still) writing. In thinking about what to write about, I realized I would need to be knowledgeable in a field. So, mostly on a whim, and at the surprise of all of my family and friends, I picked chemistry…and I fell hard for it as a chemistry major. It was definitely a weird way to get there and, still to this day, my dad tells his (dad) jokes about my complete 180 from writing to chemistry. He’s still mad he had to move me in and out of a dorm room from Emerson College- when I realized 24 hours into orientation as a writing major that I wanted to do chemistry instead!!!

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

At Northeastern, they have a co-op program where you work full time for 6 months (x3) in a lab/at a company where you can practice your skills in your degree. During my 3 co-ops, I had the opportunity to meet SO MANY amazing scientists, engineers, administrators, and leaders who have inspired me in how their individual contributions contribute to something that can be truly transformative. It was the collaborations between people working towards a common goal that truly inspired me. It’s a bit of an a-ha! moment when you realize it’s really never one person working in a lab by themselves, but a dedicated team of so many passionate people.

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?

After my first exam in organic chemistry, my professor pulled me aside and told me a) I failed the exam, and b) that I might not pass the class. I was SO DEVASTATED. Although I had only been dedicated to chemistry for just over one year, and I had really fallen in love with it. To some people, it may have been discouraging, but I dedicated that term to extra study sessions with classmates and working non-stop on my fundamentals- “pushing arrows” as we called it in organic chemistry. I passed that class that semester- and every one since. Sometimes you have to just follow what you want to do, even if other people think it’s not right for you- only you know. I quickly learned that he was kind of right- I NEVER will be an organic chemist- but I did need to learn from that class in order to be successful in my later classes, and ultimately, my career.

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

I had the opportunity to train in microscopy at the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago early in my career in pharmaceuticals. Learning about how light interacts with solid matter (in this case pharmaceutical crystals), as opposed to molecules (like you learn in school) was eye-opening for me. It led me to an interest in crystallography and crystallization, a very important area of pharmaceutical research and development.

Later in my career, I was working with a vendor who was manufacturing the final molecule for my project. Listening to how they operated, and what questions they asked made me understand that there is so much more to share about science than what you capture in a paper, or a patent. Oftentimes, it can be just as much an art form to get the science right- and transferring/managing complex science is something I became very interested in as a result, and that’s what I’m currently doing in my role at Akebia Therapeutics.

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

It’s so important to have outside interests. I’m really passionate about computer systems, and how workflows support (or don’t) tasks. Asking questions with this very analytical line of thinking has led me to question how well processes or workflows work. Say you have a process that 3 different people can find 7 different ways to complete. Is that acceptable? Will there be failures for some of those ways? I’ve found it can be helpful if you can see where things fail to work, or might be confusing to others. Finding answers and solutions to make sure things work the way you imagine/want them to is so satisfying for me, because then you can do the best science possible.

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.

First, know that your science degree taught you how to think critically, that is its FUNDAMENTAL purpose. With this, you can attack almost any problem, by breaking it down into pieces, researching what you need to, and pulling it all together in a coherent manner. From my 12 years in industry, that’s a valuable skill to have in any field or job. Second, follow your interests- volunteer and network to find one if you haven’t identified it yet, or need to refine it. Third, find people who will support you, and don’t be afraid to keep going until you feel like you fit in 100% somewhere, because it’s such an amazing thing when you do, and you can achieve SO MUCH. 😀

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