Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Paul Hanlon

MET alum Paul Hanlon (PHD ’03, Jefcoate Lab) spoke with MET Director Chad Vezina, describing his time in the program, how the program has helped his career, and what he’s been up to since he graduated.

Paul is currently a Director of Regulatory Affairs at Abbott Nutrition where is responsible for a team supporting all aspects of product innovation ranging from approval of novel food ingredients, product formulation, to the development of claims. As a board-certified toxicologist, Paul provides guidance to food safety programs that govern the control of chemical contaminants. He has coordinated the submission of novel ingredient petitions to multiple regulatory agencies, and has co-authored a number of papers focused on risk-based processes for controlling chemical contaminants in food. He participates in a number of Codex Alimentarius committees, including the Committee on Contaminants in Foods (CCCF) and the Committee on Food Additives (CCFA), and participates in multiple trade associations, including serving as the current chair of the Food Safety Working Group of the International Special Dietary Foods Industries (ISDI).

When did you participate in the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Graduate Program?

I was a student in the MET Graduate Program from 1998 to 2003.

Please tell us about your current employment (company name, your title, and your responsibilities).

I’m a Director of Regulatory Affairs at Abbott Laboratories. I work in their Nutrition division, which makes products like infant formula (Similac), meal replacement beverages (Ensure, PediaSure), and Pedialyte. I’ve been with Abbott for 9 years, and my job responsibilities have changed a lot during that time. Initially a majority of my responsibilities were toxicology-related, but now it is a minority of what I do. I still do a fair amount of risk assessment and evaluating the safety of different food substances, but the majority of my job has nothing to do with toxicology. In my current role, most of my time is dedicated to managing a group of non-toxicologists in our Regulatory Affairs department. My team has a wide range of duties that include reviewing regulatory compliance of our food ingredients to supporting global product innovation. I’m the only toxicologist here, the rest of my team are scientists, but mostly with nutrition background.

Could you describe your career path?

The best way to describe how I got to where I am now is that I have always gone with the flow. After completing my Ph.D., I did a short post-doc at NIEHS on the advice of one of my thesis committee members (David Barnes). My post-doc was actually a break from toxicology (cardiac reperfusion injury), but it was at a place that there was still plenty of toxicology happening around me so I was able to stay dialed in to that community. After a couple years there, I took a job working in the R&D department of a dietary supplement company, working for the same thesis committee member that recommended NIEHS to me. It was another shift in field, and had the added benefit of getting me experience with analytical methodology to add on to what I had been doing most of my career (cell culture and animal studies). From there, I took a role at Abbott doing Occupational Toxicology, supporting their pharmaceutical production team, which is the role that gave me first-hard experience with risk assessment (all my work to that point had been basic science). A job at a multinational company opened up a lot of opportunities, and after a couple years doing Occupational Toxicology, I found myself in Regulatory Affairs in the Nutrition division at Abbott. While I’ve been in Regulatory Affairs in Nutrition for the last seven years, my role has continued to evolve. I’ve continually volunteered to work in new areas, none of which were related to toxicology, but all of which allowed me to use some of the other skills that I picked up in graduate school.

What is your favorite grad school memory?

What I remember best about the UW MET program was the great camaraderie that we had as a student body. My incoming class was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, that the MET program has ever had. But in addition, during my time at UW I also developed great relationships with the students in the classes before me and after me. I still see lots of these students every year at the SOT meeting, and in other places. The number of toxicologists working in the US food industry isn’t that many, and I’m proud to say there are quite a few of us with Wisconsin ties (go Badgers!). I’m always happy when I’m at a meeting and I find another UW student, because it takes me back to what I liked most about the program.

Which aspects of the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Graduate Program helped you the most?

I used lots of what I learned in graduate school as my career progressed, and there were some things that I used to use a lot that don’t really apply to me anymore. When I first got out of school, my technical skills were really helpful to making sure that my post-doc and my first job were successful. Hands on skills, the ability to design experiments and interpret results, and write up publications were key. However, once my jobs started pulling me further out of the lab (I haven’t been in a lab in years, even though some of my family still imagines me in a white lab coat) it really shifted to a different set of skills that I developed while I was in the program. Now it is much more about taking a scientific approach to problem solving. This broad skill set has really let me pick up new areas quickly, as the ability to think problems through, evaluate different options, and ask the right questions helps with every job.

What advice can you offer current graduate students to help them prepare for a career in your field?  

Even though my personal strategy relied heavily on going with the flow, I’d encourage people to be more proactive about where they want to end up, and not just in one or two years but also to think about where they want to end up in five or ten years. Every career will have lots of opportunities to make choices that can have long term impacts. Sometimes it is better to take a position that in the short term isn’t as helpful, when it will end up working out better in the long term. Think about the specific aspects of the job that you like, and look for more opportunities that let you do more of that. At the same time, make sure that you are always excelling at everything that is your responsibility, because that is the way to open up new and exciting opportunities. The current director of the MET program once told me to treat every interaction like a job interview, and that is something I have taken to heart.

Lastly, while it may sound like a cliche, finding good opportunities (or having those opportunities find you) has a lot to do with who you know. So build up that network! One of the great things about the MET program is that there is a huge pool of graduates that students can tap into across a lot of different fields. Reach out to those graduates and ask them to set up some time for an informal chat about what they do. Try to find those graduates at conferences. Use those opportunities to find out what kinds of jobs you might be interested in, and at the same time you’ll be building your network.