Senior Profile: Meehan enters biotechnology field despite initial discouragement

Emma Meehan is pictured. Courtesy Emma Meehan

Graduating senior Emma Meehan doesn’t like being told that what she wants to do, particularly as an engineer, isn’t possible.

Of the fewer than 30 graduating chemical engineers from the Class of 2020, she is the only one to have studied abroad. And as an involved member of the Tufts chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, Meehan has been prepared for some of the challenges she’ll face entering a male-dominated field.

In fact, Meehan knew she wanted to be an engineer when her high school teacher, a chemical engineer himself, told her she shouldn’t.

“Senior year, I was in a general engineering class, and [the teacher] was talking about as a senior what you’re going to do after you graduate. And I remember telling him ‘Oh, I think I’m going to do chemical engineering. That sounds really interesting.’ And he [said], ‘Really? I don’t really see you as an engineer … I don’t know if that matches your learning style.’” Meehan said. “And I was like, ‘Okay. Sounds good. I’m definitely going to be a chemical engineer now. That’s what I’m going to do.’”

Meehan is particularly interested in biotechnology, and at Tufts, she has come to a greater appreciation of the positive impact the field can and does have, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Her summer internship at a gene editing company that specializes in rare disease research has helped her understand the power of her chosen field.

“Going into college, I always had this idea that drug manufacturing would be really cool. And I never really understood the impact of it until I actually started working in the field,” Meehan said.

Interning at a small company, Meehan was able to see firsthand the whole process, from research to clinical, she said. 

Meehan also spoke about the relevance of the biotechnology sector right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Biotech is in the spotlight right now, especially with everyone racing to find a vaccine for [COVID-19]. That’s an example of how disease and infectious diseases are never going to go away, and that’s something people deal with every day,” she said. 

Meehan acknowledges some of the negative connotations associated with biotechnology and gene editing, but focuses on the many benefits it has as well. 

“It’s such a great field because you’re helping people in a way that actually enables them to live  a more normal life and a more healthy life … Someone who’s dealing with a really difficult and life-changing disease could be cured forever, and that’s something that’s just amazing,” Meehan said. “Not a lot of other industries can say that they’re completely changing someone’s life for the better.”

After Tufts, Meehan will be taking this excitement with her to Pfizer, where she’ll be doing a two-year rotational program, allowing her time to explore three different areas within the engineering and manufacturing sectors.

Even though she’s deeply passionate about biotechnology, Meehan hasn’t allowed that to limit her. She has worked to keep her education and her Tufts experience as varied as possible, spending time as a member of Greek Life, the Tufts Mountain Club and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

“It makes me feel more well-rounded to not just focus on one topic and not just be around people who come from the same backgrounds and have the same interests. And I think that that’s a really cool and unique thing for Tufts,” she said.

When she reflected on why she came to Tufts in the first place, Meehan talked about her hosts during Jumbo Days. They lived in Lewis Hall, which she, along with many other Tufts students, called “Dirty Lew.” Even so, her hosts had decorated their dorm beautifully to make it feel warm and welcoming. The atmosphere certainly extended well beyond the physical space.

“They had some of their friends come over, and we were just hanging out in their room. I think we played Super Smash Bros or something. And the people were so genuine and so nice and asking [the other potential student and me] questions and not treating us like we were high schoolers, just treating us like people,” Meehan said.

That feeling of warmth and caring, along with a sense of curiosity, is what characterizes Tufts for Meehan as she says goodbye.

For Meehan, one of the defining parts of her Tufts experience is “how dedicated people [at Tufts] are, and how open people are to talk about what they’re learning and what they’re interested in. I think I’ve grown so much as a person just meeting all different kinds of people here,” she said.

In light of these experiences and what she gained from exposing herself to new areas and different people, Meehan encourages members of the Class of 2024 to try things that make them uncomfortable and to build new connections.

“It’s a cliche: trying new things and learning who you are … but I think definitely those are the times I’m going to remember the most,” Meehan said.