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Jennifer O'Neil, PhD'04, and Eric Merithew, PhD'04

Dean's Council charter members

Staying connected to help GSBS students

O'Neil, Jennifer and Merithew, Eric.jpgJennifer O’Neil, PhD’04, and Eric Merithew, PhD’04, arrived at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in 1998 as strangers. She worked in cancer biology, he focused on structural biology. Over the next six years, they became a couple.

“We sat across from each other in one of the required classes,” Dr. O’Neil said. “I didn’t know him well, until we went out with a mutual friend one night, and things went from there. I think the GSBS has such a shared spirit, and because everyone is so committed to what they are doing, great friendships, and romances, come from that.”

Today, Jennifer and Eric are raising their children in Massachusetts and pursing dynamic careers. She’s working on immunotherapies for cancer, and he’s protecting public drinking water supplies with advanced technologies. Together, they remain connected to the GSBS as members of the Dean’s Council, and by participating in campus events and mentoring students.

“This is no knock on my undergraduate school, but I feel more connected to UMass,” Jennifer said. “Graduate school is the first time in your education where you can focus on just what you want to do. So that makes it a very impactful time. It’s not an easy time; it’s hard work. It’s a grueling exercise to get a PhD, but I think it’s a transformative part of your life.”

The experiences of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the role industry is playing to help bring new vaccines and therapeutics to patients, have for Jennifer, further underscored the importance of the education available at the GSBS.

“I think this pandemic has shown the world the importance of science, and the impact scientists can have on human health,” she said. “I also believe it shows that as scientists, we have an obligation to educate our friends, our family and people in general to make sure they have the information they need to make good decisions.”

Today, Eric is a regional manager for Suez Advanced Water Solutions while Jennifer is vice president of translational oncology at Xilio Therapeutics in Waltham, a relatively new biotech company working to improve immunotherapy cancer drugs by limiting off-target side effects. She joined Xilio after 10 years at Merck, where she also focused on cancer therapies.

“I’ve always been interested in science, since grade school,” Jennifer said. “I was like many people who’ve had cancer affect their family—when I was in college, my father battled the disease. That really motivated me and influenced my career path.”

After earning her PhD, Jennifer took a post-doctoral position at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the logical next step on an academic pathway heading toward becoming a university-based researcher. During that work, however, she was drawn to a different career path.

“When I was in graduate school, I thought I was going to stay in academics, partly because that was really the only option discussed,” she said. “I had been given the impression that industry science wasn’t as good. But during my post doc, I had a collaboration with scientists at Merck, and we published some papers together. I saw they were doing great science, and I realized the reason why I got into science, and cancer biology specifically, was a desire to have an impact on human health, and in industry is where I could see that impact more directly.”

Jennifer said she’s been happy to learn how the culture at the GSBS has evolved, especially through the leadership of Dean Mary Ellen Lane, to encourage students to consider a wider range of career opportunities. O’Neil said she and her husband are committed to supporting the GSBS because of that culture and the great science being done at the medical school.

“Eric and I have both gone back for some of the alumni events, and talked to students and faculty there. It’s clear that faculty are asking students to think more broadly and helping them to explore more options,” Jennifer said. “Today, students know that they don’t have only one path—that there are many things they can do with their PhD, and that industry is a great option.

Drs. O’Neil and Merithew have been steadfast donors to the GSBS since 2010.