Caroline Morton Huffman (C’86) came back to Sewanee on a chilly Wednesday night. While drinking tea, she spoke on her liberal arts education and how it affected her jobs later on.
She talked to me before she attended an event hosted by the Babson Center. The event was hosted for her to explain what she had done with her English major outside of an English career. She currently is the Clinical Research Specialist Site Manager in Oncology with Janssen Research and Development of Johnson & Johnson. Her job includes working alongside hospitals to effectively perform clinical trials on cancer patients. Before then, she worked for a large international pharmaceutical company based out of Switzerland called Novartis. But it took Huffman a while to settle into Big Pharma.
After Huffman graduated from Sewanee with an English Degree, her original plan after college was to go to become an English Professor. She got accepted to three different graduate programs: UVA, Duke, and UNC. However, at the last minute, she deferred and moved to DC to work for a large law firm.
“I was kind of miserable with my job,” said Huffman. She ended up going to grad school for two years but did not care for that either. “I really did not like being a grad student and the process of it was just depressing.”
She then moved to Montgomery, Alabama which she describes as being “basically” her hometown. She worked as a paralegal there. But she moved back to Chapel Hill after the workplace became too toxic.
“I had zero support from my family. I was just sort of, you know, throwing my fate to the gods,” said Huffman. “I had no job, a little money but not a lot.”
Once she moved back to Chapel Hill, she slowly landed in the medical community. She got a part-time job tutoring international MPH students who needed help writing their master’s thesis. Despite it being a part-time job, she was able to put on her resume: medical writer. Because of this change, her temp agency sent her over to Duke Medical Center.
“They figured out that I could write, and I started writing stuff for them,” said Huffman.
She got hired by Robert Califf, who later became FDA commissioner under President Obama. She then spoke of how somebody who managed the study Huffman was working on had to leave because they were overworked. Somebody just had to step in and do that job, and Huffman did it. She ended up becoming a coordinator for the clinical trial. She eventually got published in the [medical journal].
“That’s been really my ticket to everything I have done ever since,” said Huffman.
Despite her slowly rising in the rankings, Huffman says that a lot of her success came from her attending Sewanee and learning necessary skills here. Sewanee’s liberal arts education allowed her “the confidence to think critically and to write authoritatively.” However, thinking critically can be dated to the first time she walked into an English class with Professor Stirling, after which Stirling’s Coffee House is named.
“He was the best professor of all time, but he was also terrifying,” said Huffman. She was assigned a poem for his class and did not properly prepare for the next class period. “I did not look up every single word in the Oxford English Dictionary. So, I did not know all the nuances. So, yeah, I was underprepared.”
She said that she always prepares because of that moment.
“I didn’t just accept what was there in the writing. I look everything up,” said Huffman. “That really translates to my job now. I have to look things up and make sure that, you know, our study’s drugs aren’t making people even sicker.”
“The point is that so many students have really valuable skills to offer at the workplace,” said Huffman. “You have to convince people that you’re worth taking a chance on. Like, I had no medical background, very little science. I really could just write, communicate, and learn quickly.”