Mary Jane McCarthy

Forensic Toxicology and Pharmaceutical unit

When Mary-Jane was at school, she was always good at the sciences, particularly biology.

“Initially, I had my heart set on being a marine biologist,” she says. “I was particularly drawn to ocean ecology and the marine mammals. Yet, when I got to university, I discovered that I didn’t really like the subjects I’d chosen.”

Instead, Mary Jane picked up a random course in biochemistry and loved it – and it set her on a path focused around medical and health science.

Her first job after university was DNA fingerprinting of humpback whales – including a trip around the archipelago of Tonga collecting samples.

“This was like my initial two loves coming together – marine biology and molecular biology – and it was all I could have dreamed of,” she says. Plus, it gave Mary Jane a taste for travel.

“By this time, I was really hankering to get out of New Zealand,” she recalls. “So, I headed off to the UK and got a job at the Great Ormond Street Hospital, working on the genetics of childhood brain tumours.”

It was a small step for Mary-Jane to shift from her work at the hospital to a PhD at the University College of London, studying neurodegenerative diseases, and on to working for first GlaxoSmithKline and then Sandoz pharmaceutical companies on research into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

“Then I got married, had children and dragged my English family back to New Zealand,” Mary-Jane recalls. “I always say, I left with a backpack and came back with a husband, two kids and a container of stuff. But New Zealand is the place I wanted to raise my children, so there was no question for me that I’d be back.”

Once home, Mary-Jane took up a role working for Medsafe on the regulation of medicines.

“I moved from one end of the drug discovery path to the other and spent 10 years at Medsafe before deciding I wanted to go back to something more scientifically-based,” she says. And so Mary Jane found her career turning full circle.

“Getting this job with ESR has allowed me to bring all those diverse aspects of my background together,” she reflects. “I’m back in a science-focused role, and I’m combining that with my skills in the regulation and policy. I get to blend service delivery work with research and to think about how we might improve what we do and fill in the gaps to make things better – I think I might have found my perfect fit!”