For Crystal McKinnon '11, who would become the first member of her family to complete a college degree, the path was not always clear. She graduated from Gardner High School with strong grades and numerous college acceptances, but had to find a way to balance school and the three jobs she was working to pay for it.
“Fitchburg State was the one school I could afford and still live my life,” she said. “There, you can do it, and people understand.”
She wasn’t sure where her dawning educational journey would take her, though she sometimes thought about becoming a high school French teacher. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I started at Fitchburg State, but I enjoyed the courses,” she said. “I didn’t have a declared major until halfway through my sophomore year.”
That’s when her love of science crystallized and a track presented itself. “All of the faculty there are doing what they love, and they’re passionate about what they’re doing,” said McKinnon, who has kept in touch with several of her former professors and still counts them as mentors.
She completed her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2011. “I assumed I would end up teaching,” she said. “I just started applying for any job I could find that needed a bachelor’s degree in bio.”
That plan paid off, as McKinnon entered the state’s thriving life sciences sector and witnessed the diverse opportunities within the field wherein she could use her talents to support the development of medical therapies.
In addition, McKinnon continued her studies, ultimately completing a master’s degree in biotechnology at Northeastern University. While at that campus she was given a chance to teach, and she saw that her journey had come full circle. She teaches basic biotech lab skills, as well as courses on the history of the field and a course on lab-based instrumentation skills. “I love watching people say, ‘I get it now,’” she said.
In 2022, McKinnon joined Dewpoint Therapeutics in Boston, where she specializes in utilizing automation for high-throughput efficiency. In simple terms, she does science with robots. “I have a lot of instrumentation that helps me enable my science,” she said. “It’s way more robust than I could be with my hands.”
McKinnon said she loves talking about her work and seeks opportunities to expose students - especially students of color - to the careers that are available to them. She volunteers as a career ambassador with the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation (MassBioEd for short), a non-profit with the mission of growing the state’s biotech industry.
“I try to do as many events as I can, because I find it so fulfilling and so necessary so people understand what life is like in the industry,” McKinnon said.
She was delighted earlier this year when she saw MassBioEd was holding an event at Fitchburg State. “It felt like a homecoming,” she said. But with a difference. During her studies, she recalled, most of the students in her science courses were white males. “At this event, it was such a diverse group of students who came through, and I was so excited. To see Fitchburg State is so diverse now, with really passionate professors, I’m so excited that this generation of people is coming up.”
When she’s not in the lab or mentoring the next generation of scientists, McKinnon blows off steam as a member of the Bay State Brawlers roller derby team, based at the Wallace Civic Center.
That adventure began when a friend approached her at the end of a long and difficult week and suggested roller derby as a novel way to get in shape. “As soon as I showed up, I put on my gear and I said, ‘This is so fun.’ We are very inclusive, very body-positive. We have people from such different walks of life, including lawyers and statisticians. It’s a fun place to be, and we also get to be aggressive.”