Auburn MBA student inspired by personal medical obstacles in role advancing clinical trials

Published: June 19, 2020
Updated: June 22, 2020
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For Meghan Alonso, finally earning her Master of Business Administration from Auburn this August will signify the culmination of a long, challenging road.

The Arlington, Texas, native isn’t making the trek to The Plains from her home outside Washington, D.C., for commencement on Aug. 8, but she will be beaming with pride and likely wearing burnt orange and navy blue to commemorate her accomplishment. After all, her academic journey was one fraught with obstacles and setbacks, and her perseverance signifies a “spirit that is not afraid.”

Completing her Online MBA will mark the end of a process that began in 2014, one that included a six-month gap for treatment and surgery to remove a non-cancerous brain tumor last February. Alonso already is putting the skills she learned working toward her advanced degree to work as director of business development for Clinipace, a global, full-service contract research organization, or CRO, that helps biotech and pharmaceutical companies advance clinical trials.

She is relieved to complete the lengthy journey.

“I am happy to have all of the work done,” said Alonso, who earned her undergraduate degree in recreation, parks and tourism sciences from Texas A&M in 2003. “I think some people find an MBA or other big undertaking challenging, and it is, but for me I celebrate little wins along the way, like finishing another class. I took one class at a time to not stress myself out. It feels very good to finally be done and is a big relief.”

Alonso’s gravitation toward the pharma world makes even more sense considering she also overcame a more than decade-long ordeal with Hepatitis C—an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver. She was diagnosed with the disease in 1999 and didn’t find a successful treatment until late 2011.

“My family was kind of a medical mystery when I was growing up,” Alonso said. “My brother and I were diagnosed as children, and it took doctors a while to figure out what we had. We’re still not sure how we got it, but doctors think my mother contracted it through a blood transfusion in the ’70s and then passed it on to us at birth.

“A cancer drug was part of the treatment we went through. For me, it worked the second time, and my brother had to go through three rounds of it.”

The medical troubles Alonso experienced instilled in her a desire to help others. She started teaching fitness classes and working with athletes to prevent injuries, and that led her to outpatient orthopedic rehabilitation. As her career progressed, she helped companies develop rapid diagnostic tests for everything from pregnancy to infectious disease to nuclear radiation exposure.

“My saga with Hep C has for sure inspired me to work in the health care industry,” said Alonso, who is celebrating her one-year anniversary at Clinipace. “I've been working in health care since 2005 and was considering going back to nursing, becoming a physician’s assistant or going to med school, but discovered I really like the business side of medicine and can use my relationship/creative side in sales and marketing. So, I pursued an MBA instead.”

Alonso said Auburn’s flexible MBA program, coupled with the university’s values and welcoming atmosphere, attracted her to join the Auburn Family.

“Auburn’s program is so nice because it’s not cohort-based, so you can go at your own speed,” Alonso said. “You can do it in 18 months or have up to six years, and I definitely almost used all six years. It was easier for me while working full-time and with everything going on with life, so the flexibility was key for me. The culture at Auburn really attracted me, as I went to undergrad at Texas A&M and felt Auburn had a similar feel.”

In her role as director of business development, Alonso serves as a liaison between biotech and pharma companies that want to advance or start clinical trials. Whether it’s helping them navigate regulatory agencies, find and procure staff and lab space or store and organize data, Alonso and Clinipace offer communication, information, implementation and guidance for their clients.

It’s a process that can take weeks, months or even years, depending on the drug and the company’s goals. Alonso is using the skills learned in Auburn’s MBA program in a variety of ways at Clinipace.

“My Auburn MBA education has set the stage for my conversations with clients,” she said. “Everything from economics to understanding their supply chain to marketing to understanding their reimbursement from insurance payors to my consulting capstone course for identifying client expectations, what our company can realistically deliver and negotiating a deal. I am so glad I invested in myself by getting an MBA at Auburn.”

Working in the medical research field is fulfilling for Alonso, given her personal experience.

“I’ve had some pretty significant health problems in my life to where I wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for medical innovations,” she said. “So, for me, it’s just fun to be on the forefront of this research and what is coming up to potentially help patients. That’s just really fun to see, and I like being in the sales portion because I’m exposed to everything that’s going on.”

She says the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in a shift of Clinipace’s focus, and the company has allocated roughly 10 percent of its business to the race to fight COVID-19. Several of their clients have investigational products to diagnose COVID-19, treat COVID-19 or treat the secondary symptoms like pneumonia.

Day to day, Alonso and her Clinipace team stay abreast of COVID-19 hot spots around the globe and determine where to guide their clients’ research efforts to accelerate the trials. Alonso has been dedicated to helping others for more than 15 years, but never thought she’d be working with an organization fighting against a global pandemic.

“We’ve definitely pivoted with our business, because that’s what is needed right now, and thankfully we have the expertise in-house and have a number of people who have worked on and been involved with various infectious disease trials,” Alonso said. “Since it’s been in the news every day, people are understanding what trials are and why they’re important. I think, going forward, more people will be more interested in participating in future trials because they get to help shape medicine, which is exciting.”

Alonso is cautiously optimistic a coronavirus vaccine can be found as soon as possible, especially considering there are more than 2,100 trials worldwide being managed by organizations like Clinipace.

“Part of the barriers to getting to market is the review time of the regulatory agencies,” she said. “The first hurdle is applying to run your trial, then later the regulatory bodies review the data. Once you enter the last phase, they’ll ultimately approve or not approve your product.

“They are all helping to accelerate this process, because this is a major priority and it is going faster than normal. Whether we’re going to see a vaccine by the end of the year or January, we’re just going to have to see, and it’s hard to tell. That is very, very ambitious.”

Ambition has long been a driving force for Alonso, whether she was fighting a medical affliction or working toward a career goal.

“Everyone has been a patient at some point, and I just have a personal connection with Clinipace,” she said. “Because of all I’ve been through, I’ve had to become a fighter. It’s so fulfilling to be part of an effort to make other people’s lives better, and I’m proud to be an Auburn Tiger.”

Auburn University's Harbert College of Business provides its students with an innovative-yet-practical education focused on career readiness. The college's degree programs in accountancy, business analytics and supply chain management lead the nation. Its research centers in supply chain management and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology guide the Fortune 100. Harbert's pioneering online education programs offer value and flexibility. The college's nationally recognized faculty produce research that informs and responds to today's business trends. Learn more at the Harbert College of Business website.