Alum Spotlight: Annette Johnston


Growing up in Highland Park, IL, Annette Johnston received a Bachelor of Art degree in Chemistry from Knox College and a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After working several years in the healthcare industry, she decided to advance her education and  completed her MEM degree in 2013.  Annette is currently a Senior Project Manager at Abbott Laboratories, and strongly believes that a degree from Northwestern’s MEM Program has strengthened her career. We asked her to share some of her experiences and insight regarding MEM in relation to career development:

What made you decide to pursue a MEM degree? 

I’ve been working for more than twenty years, and a lot has evolved since I got my bachelor degrees. It was time for a general refresh. I had begun thinking about my future up to retirement and beyond. I expect that I will be working on some technical enterprise for some time to come. I mentioned this at graduation – when I went to the information session, I did not think it was for me, since most of the people at the session could have been my children. Yet in order to be effective with people that are my children’s age, I need to see the world as they do, and to be taught the same things they are learning. I am glad that I decided to purse my MEM.

What was the best part about MEM: 

Three things: 1) a new network, 2) a nice overview of managing technical enterprises, 3) a better way to know yourself.

I found many of the courses interesting in a sort of intellectual or strategic way. But the hardest courses for me most likely taught me the most – those with the softer skills. I am a strongly data driven individual. These courses taught me to look for different data. In the past, I had dismissed this data as unimportant, or I just plain missed it altogether. Some of the most important data was about myself, and how to apply what I know about my own perceptions to managing situations.

I also participated in as many of the MEMPC programs as I could. Through this organization, you can develop working relationships not only with Northwestern MEM graduates, but graduates of other prominent universities across the country.  

Favorite class or teacher:

At Northwestern MEM, I have a tie of favorites: Donald McNeeley and Michael Watson. I know they are very different people, but they have one thing in common: They made their subject incredibly accessible, and the passion they had for their topic was always apparent and infectious. In their class, I had high confidence about my ability to master what they were teaching. I am always checking to be sure that my models are not over defined, and I see the lifecycle pattern of industries unfolding everywhere, just as we were taught.

How has your MEM experience contributed to your career path?

I have a much clearer idea of what I want to work on, and I have the tools to work on it. Right now, I just know I want to be the Best Program Manager – ever.  I have a passion for Continuous Improvement Projects, and I am enjoying the Product Launch Projects I am working on now. Each project requires learning those two types of data quickly– the human factors and the technical factors. I think I am much more effective at that than I used to be – and I am working on larger and more significant projects as a result.

Word of advice to future students:

If you are a data driven person, as most engineers are, do NOT avoid the “softer classes”. Be sure to take Leadership and Managing classes in at least equal helpings to the data based classes. Leadership and Management is a data based practice – just different data. Also, take the startup business classes. Even if you never start a business of your own, you will better understand the point of view of the people around you that ARE trying to manage the business you’re in. If you want to develop and market anything, such as a new initiative, your favorite technical society, or that department that you just took a position in, you will know how to do it.


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