Melissa Coughlin


The Vaccine Development Scientist | 40 Under 40 Class of 2020

"Action is character. You get what you give."



Melissa Coughlin works for the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., where she develops vaccines against weapons of biological warfare and enteric infections that impact deployed troops. Learn all about how she got to where she is today in her career in her extended interview. 


What inspired you to go into this line of work?

I’ve always been interested in science and medicine. Being able to help people in the clinic or in the lab is really rewarding.


What challenge did you overcome to get where you are today?

I struggled a lot with time management and being disciplined in college.


Did someone help you get to where you are today, like a mentor?

My high school biology teacher really encouraged me to follow and develop my interest in science and medicine.


What do you love most about your job?

Seeing drugs that I helped develop get approval for the clinic and hearing from patients whose lives have been changed because of the medicines we are working on.

Stripes or Polka Dots


Apple or Android


Mountains or Beach


Staycation or Vacation


Left Brain or Right Brain




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    Sheryl Sandberg

Describe yourself in three words.

Sarcastic, funny and leader.


Your life philosophy is…

Action is character.


What is the best piece of advice you received?

A former supervisor and mentor of mine told me to always sit at the table during meetings. In a male dominated profession, where most of my colleagues are older than me, it was intimidating at first but has helped me gain the confidence I needed to prove that I am just as much an expert in my field as anyone else and that my input ought to be valued.

If someone handed you an airline ticket to a place of your choosing, where would you go and why?

The Holy Land. I love history and the history of the Bible. It would be amazing to see all those places and to walk in the footsteps of iconic men and women who are important in world religion.


What’s something you cannot live without?

My schnauzer mixes, Cooper and Draper.


Name a book you read that positively shaped you.

The Bible


If you weren’t working in the industry that you are, what would you be doing instead?



How do you unwind or relax after a long day?

Long walks around D.C. with my dogs, dinner with friends or a Bravo TV binge sesh.


The most rewarding aspect of your job is…

Making a positive impact in patients’ lives.


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it – metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions – what would it say and why?

“You get what you give.”


In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Taking time for myself and self-care! I used to use how over programmed or over committed I was as a metric of success. Now, I cherish coming home from work and having quiet time or a weekend with zero plans.


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?

I just refocus my time and energy on another aspect of my personal, professional or civic life. Switching gears and leaning into something else often frees up whatever obstacle was in my way.


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be money, time, energy, etc.)

Moving from Boston to D.C. was one of the scariest and best decisions I have ever made! I am surrounded and encouraged every day by amazing friends, colleagues and Gamma Phi Beta sisters!

Name a confident woman of character who you look up to? Why her?

Saint Teresa of Calcutta! Amid political, social and religious conflict, she had the confidence, courage and compassion to minister to people discarded by humanity with perfect poise.