A professor’s invitation to tour a lab hooked her on science and research.
When she knew that academia was not for her, she networked and landed in management consulting.
Growing up in and around the metro Atlanta area, Michelle Renee Tougas graduated from Chapel Hill High School. From there she enrolled at Georgia Tech as a biology major.
Throughout her four years at Tech, Michelle did undergraduate research. A professor’s offer to give her a tour of his lab got Michelle hooked on biomedical science from her first semester as a freshman. So hooked that after she earned her B.S. in Biology in 2006, she went on to graduate studies at Duke University. She earned her Ph.D. in Neurobiology in 2012.
Now Michelle Renee Lyons, she is an associate partner at McKinsey & Company. How she landed in management consulting is an eye-opening storyfor Ph.D. graduates who realize that academia is not where they ultimately want to be.
What is your average workday like?
I am a part of McKinsey’s Pharmaceutical and Medical Products R&D practice. As an associate partner, I oversee and lead McKinsey teams on projects to help pharma and biotech clients answer big-picture questions about clinical development strategies for medical products, regulatory submission approaches for new products, unmet patient needs, and other related topics.
My days vary widely. Sometimes I spend three days side-by-side with clients in intensive workshops, digging into the content of a project we’re doing with them. Other times I’m in a McKinsey office, problem solving with my teams, contributing to knowledge creation, connecting with colleagues, etc.
How did Georgia Tech prepare you for your current position?
Beyond what I learned in class, I took away two important things from Georgia Tech.
First, Tech is not an easy school. Classes are hard and can take a tremendous amount of work. The work ethic and attitude of “keep trying” that I developed at Tech have helped me throughout my career.
Second, I developed the beginnings of my professional network at Tech. I am still in touch with some of my advisors and several close friends.
Nael McCarty, who is now at Emory, was my undergraduate advisor. I did research in his lab for all of my four years at Tech. I had NO idea what scientific research was when I started as a freshman.
One day after class, he asked if I wanted a tour of his lab. Fast forward four years, and I graduated as a biology co-op student. I was the first student to co-op in a Georgia Tech laboratory. I went for my Ph.D. because I found I really love science, research, and discovering new things.
Professor McCarty changed my career trajectory by simply inviting me to learn more about the cool stuff in his lab.
What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?
Four years into my Ph.D., I realized that the academic professor track was not for me. I loved science. I loved problem solving and critical thinking. I had gone for a Ph.D. because I thought I wanted to do biomedical science to help improve patient care by better understanding human disease.
However, I wanted to get closer to drug development, so I started talking to people. I reached out —through thegraduate student career center, my undergrad connections, people my Ph.D. advisor knew—to anyone in the space I wanted to explore.
I learned a lot about what’s out there, including management consulting, which is where I am now.
What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?
Early in my time at McKinsey, I worked on a project to help a client determine the strategic direction for their organization’s R&D program. The project was long and complex. We made several recommendations for moving forward, and they have implemented almost everything we suggested.
I frequently have moments when I feel I’ve made a difference. This one in particular felt really good because it was such a big project involving such a large R&D investment by the client. I stay in touch with them, and it has been very cool to see where they’ve gone since that project.
What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?
My best friend at Tech and I were very close. Both biology majors, we went out on Friday nights together, we were gym buddies—suffice it to say, we spent a lot of time together and had so much fun during our time at Tech. In fact, I spent so much time around her family that her parents started jokingly calling me their “second daughter!” She and I are still close; we were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings.
What advice would you give to current students at Georgia Tech?
Find your niche. Tech is a big place. Finding a core group of professors, fellow students, and other Tech staff who are “your people” will make Tech feel less big and more like home.
If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?
I’m very happy doing what I’m doing right now, so that’s a tough one. I don’t want to be anywhere else. But if I had to choose a different line of work, I would be a scuba diving instructor and live somewhere tropical and take people on dive trips every day. I might also do sea turtle research. I love sea turtles!
What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?
My husband and I both have Rescue Diver certifications. We plan to get our son certified as soon as he is old enough.
I am also a very good baker. I turn out cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, etc., every time we have guests.
If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?
Marie Curie. She was such a brilliant person—and a leader in science when women couldn’t participate in science. She was also the first woman to be buried in France’sPanthéon for her own accomplishments.