Meet a Member - Melissa Tassinari, PhD, DABT

Like many people, my work career did not follow a carefully planned path. Rather it has been a series of unexpected turns each of which provided a richness to what could be described as a transdisciplinary career. I am a developmental and reproductive toxicologist that has had opportunities to work in academia, industry and government. Each phase of my career offered experiences that enabled me to bridge the spheres of nonclinical, clinical and regulatory science.  The Teratology Society and the diversity of its membership, all focused on the same mission, helped me all along this path. As I had opportunities for personal and professional growth come along, I often called on the network of colleagues and friends to talk through the current ‘challenge’.  There are also many leadership opportunities that I took part in the workings of the Society, as a student and then as a member.  I had the chance to serve on Society committees and Council for many years. In 2005-2006 I was President of the Society.

Graduate school was The Medical College of Wisconsin under the mentorship of Dr. Sally Long, a former Secretary of the Teratology Society and Dr. Stan Kaplan, also a Teratology Society member. I was in the first class of student members of the Society.  Sally was a mentor beyond the laboratory as I arrived to begin my graduate work as she was returning from maternity leave. I finished my thesis while she was on her second maternity leave. In between those leaves, I watched and learned as she juggled a two career family life, a full teaching load at the medical school and several graduate students with grace and humor.  I took those lessons with me through my post-doc at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Boston Children’s Hospital and in the first part of my career in academic research as our 3 children were born and family life took on an increasingly important part of life’s balance.

I loved teaching and did it both in undergraduate and graduate settings for 12 years. Students keep you on your toes. I found academic research hard, grant proposals were not my strength, but the collaborations in the labs were rewarding. The experiences I had served me well in the next phase of my career that began with a phone call.

That call led to an opportunity to set up and manage a new DART laboratory at Pfizer in Groton Ct. The chance to apply my experience in a different setting was a great opportunity but this involved uprooting my family, and stepping into industry without having any experience in regulatory science. I am forever grateful to a husband who was willing to take on a considerable commute because of the move. It was a steep learning curve initially, but I found another great setting to work.  I eventually moved from the lab to the larger sphere of management in toxicology and then to the sphere of regulatory policy. 

Over the years there were points that my daily work pulled me further away from my real scientific passion and those were the times that were the most stressful. They often coincided with the challenges of being a working parent.  There are times when it can feel like an either/or set of choices, but it doesn’t have to be.  It is in those times that one can step back and re-think how to achieve balance.  The friendships and networks I have in the Teratology Society were invaluable to provide perspective and /or commiseration. 

After 18 years in industry my work career took another turn when I decided to take an early retirement and join the Division of Pediatric and Maternal Health at the FDA. In many ways, this was a ‘coming home’ to the scientific area that I love and a third way to experience the science of teratology, through the lens of Public Health.  For the past 7 years I have used my collective experiences to improve the safety of medicines for pregnant women, breastfeeding women and children.

My advice to anyone starting out is to find your center. Understand that this center can and will shift over time as life happens. For me, understanding what I loved to do and keeping that a central part of my work experiences meant seeking roles that allowed me to stand at the center of overlapping spheres of nonclinical, clinical and regulatory science.

The more important center however is the one that allows you to balance your passion(s), your abilities, and your personal life and well-being. Find your center, stay balanced, stay curious, do not neglect your non-science life, and always stay open to possibilities.

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