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MS program leads to career advancement for new graduate

Amanda Goodman

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates

A Colorado native, Kelly Vaggalis traded the Rocky Mountains for Raleigh, North Carolina, for a job opportunity in the medical device field. She didn’t know it at the time, but eventually she’d end up back in the Southwest — at least digitally — as a graduate student.  

Vaggalis says networking with peers and colleagues, plus a personal desire to expand her career path, led her to pursue a degree from Arizona State University’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation. It also helped that the program she was interested in, the MS in clinical research management, was online.

“Taking courses online was an absolute must for me because of the amount of travel that I do for work. It was so nice to be able to have the flexibility to do my schoolwork either early in the morning or at night or from a hotel room,” Vaggalis said.

Two years later and her hard work has paid off. Not only is Vaggalis graduating but she recently accepted a position with the clinical operations team at her company and will be working on her own clinical research study to help get a therapy approved for a new indication of cancer.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer:  My "aha" moment when I realized I wanted to study clinical research management was when I was at a new clinical trial site for one of the studies I was working with at my company. There, I met the clinical research manager for the study who was helpful enough to discuss with me my career goals and how to get there. She started out in the job that I was currently in and went back to get her MS in CRM to get the background necessary for a career in clinical research. I took her story to heart and I’m following the same path that she took to eventually become a global trial manager.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the (virtual) classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: While at ASU I learned a great deal about how many different components there are in clinical research. I had an understanding of how a sponsor works with a CRO and investigators due to the interactions I was a part of at work, but I never took into consideration many of the other players who hold a stake. There are ethics review boards, regulatory requirements, data management software and so many other roles that work together to run a single trial. It was very eye-opening to experience a class in each perspective of the trial. Now, I feel better able to understand the context of the big picture even if I don't specialize in every aspect personally.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU for my MS because I had a recommendation from someone at my company to look into CRM programs. Later that same day I ran into a friend that I hadn't seen in a while and started discussing next career steps. She told me that she had just started her first semester at ASU and gave the program a glowing review! I especially loved the fact that each semester I was able to take one class at a time for 8 weeks before beginning the next course so my attention was never split between too many classes in addition to all that I had going on at work.  

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A:  My capstone professor, Barbara Marusiak, taught me the most important lesson while at ASU. She was nice enough to get in touch with me before my capstone course even began to help me understand what the intent of the project was and brainstorm ideas that I could use to complete the course requirement and also leverage my career. I ended up using my capstone project as the networking opportunity I needed to get involved with the clinical operations team at my company, and due to this I eventually received a job offer to become part of this team.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best piece of advice I'd give to those still in school is to use what you're learning in class in the context that you work in. Bounce ideas you learn off of your contacts working in the industry. There is usually a big difference between classroom learning, which gives you a great background and context for the field, and how things actually work in the real world. Being able to extrapolate information that you learn in class and put it into practice will help you better understand the "why" of how something is done and will help you make connections in your company that can help you continue to progress in your career.