Madison Neisser

Juggling School Struggles on a Path Toward Biotech Policy
It’s so easy to put yourself in a box of "I’m not a science person" or "Math isn’t my thing," but that, perhaps unintentionally, puts blinders up and makes it hard to see how much you are truly capable of.

Unique Journey to a Career in Biotech 

Looking back, Madison Neisser remembers her high school days as some of the hardest. “To this day, even working a full-time job along with other adult responsibilities, I still can’t believe everything you fit into a day as a high schooler—waking up at the crack of dawn to catch the bus, participating in 7 to 8 hours of school, attending after-school activities or working a job, and then going home to dive into hours of homework only to do it all again,” she says.

For Neisser, high school was also particularly difficult as she searched for a path forward. “Everyone else seemed to ‘have it figured out,’ like they were really good at a sport, or great at a certain school subject, and knew where they wanted to go to college, or even had a vague idea of what they wanted to do,” she says. “This, of course I know now, was entirely untrue.

I wish I knew that it was OK to have no idea and, in fact, it was a good thing; it left me the headspace and openness to any experience my life evolved toward, without limiting myself to any one specific outcome that I wasn’t even yet sure of.

Some 7 years later, Neisser is working at Amgen as a senior associate in Global Regulatory Research & Development Policy in Washington, DC. There, she works to help shape policies that will support the company’s research-based approaches to developing and providing therapies to patients. Growing up in rural Virginia, her educational path to get to her current position was nontraditional.

Both of Neisser’s parents were in the entertainment business—her mother, a professional dancer and actress, and her father, a professional juggler and science entertainer—making her decision to pursue college after high school an unconventional one to them and something she had to largely navigate on her own. With limited financial means and unsure of what to study, Neisser applied to some small colleges and ended up attending the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. Struggling with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, she dropped out after a few semesters and then enrolled at a local community college, Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“The smaller classes led to close relationships with my professors, and I excelled academically without the pressure to ‘choose my degree,’” she says. “My classmates were a mix of people of all ages, and I saw them as people with complex lives and facing unique challenges just as I was. I had the privilege of being able to live at home, maintain a full-time job, and used this time as an opportunity to craft a college experience that would fit.”

After a year at the community college, Neisser transferred to the University of Virginia (UVA), where she at first had no idea what she wanted to study.

It got to the point where my advisor, who was also one of my professors and to this day I keep in touch with as a mentor, asked me "What if I told you your degree had nothing to do with your career, or even the rest of your life?’ I was an English major, and now I’m a psychologist. ... He helped me reframe the decision to, more simply, "what classes do you enjoy?”

Having loved the psychology classes she had taken so far, she decided to pursue a major in psychology. Shortly after, she took a course called “Justice and Health Care,” which would forever change her perspectives. Learning about emerging public health challenges such as cloning, biobanking, privacy concerns, and reproductive technologies highlighted for her how public health is an ethical endeavor. She decided to minor in bioethics and began focusing her interests on public health issues.

Ten days after graduating from UVA, she started a job at Amgen on the State Government Affairs team, focusing on local advocacy for patients’ access to drugs and learning about policy lobbying. That work led to her current position, where she works on everything from interacting with trade associations to managing new database tools.

One of her favorite recent projects, she says, was designing and operating a real-time database tool for monitoring regulatory guidance in more than 50 countries with ongoing clinical trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal was to help answer questions such as: Can trial participants receive treatment during the COVID pandemic? Can you deliver treatment to their home so they don’t need to come to site during the pandemic? If they stop the trial because of the pandemic, how will this affect the trial and patient treatment plan?

The science and technology industry is very fast paced, so there is always a new challenge to tackle or novel strategy to develop,” Neisser says, “and I love being able to use critical thinking skills while approaching problem solving with a learning mindset.

Neisser’s biggest piece of advice to current students to keep an open mind:

It’s so easy to put yourself in a box of "I’m not a science person" or "Math isn’t my thing," but that, perhaps unintentionally, puts blinders up and makes it hard to see how much you are truly capable of,” she says. “I think the best skill I’ve used is adopting a detective-like approach to vetting opportunities and openness to trying new things.

When she tells people she works in biotechnology, Neisser says that people always assume she works in a lab. Now in a non-lab-based biotech job, she herself has been amazed to see how many different types of work are part of the biotech industry—positions she did not even know existed in high school.

“My dad, who somehow was able to make a living from juggling, always says, ‘Keep doing what you love and maybe eventually someone will pay you to do it!’ If you had told me I would work in biotech as an adult, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Neisser says.