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When Margaret (Sprague) Riley, Class of 1977 and honored member of the Walpole High School Hall of Fame, entered the pre-med program at Umass Amherst, little did she know it marked the beginning of a career that would lead to extraordinary accomplishments and recognition as an expert in the field of antibiotic resistant bacteria. “One of our biggest health crises is antibiotic resistance”, she explained. “We have misused and abused antibiotics to the point where they don’t work.” Her current research focuses on how to utilize knowledge of bacterial ecology to develop new narrow-spectrum drugs that fight specific bacteria, a different approach from the current broad-spectrum antibiotics such as penicillin or amoxicillin to which greater numbers of people are developing resistance.
After graduating from WHS, where she played varsity basketball, Margaret earned a B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Zoology from UMass followed by a Ph. D. in Biology (concentrating in molecular evolution) from Harvard University in 1989. She then joined Yale University as a professor in biology where she spent 15 years teaching and conducting research. During her Yale tenure, in addition to numerous awards such as the National Institute of Health FIRST and a Sloan Fellowship in Molecular Evolution, she was awarded the National Science Foundation Young Investigator award which earned her a trip to the White House to meet President and First Lady Clinton. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and subsequent anthrax scares, she was invited to work with government agencies to help identify new ways to detect biological agents.
In 2004 Margaret returned to her roots joining the UMass faculty as a professor of biology teaching graduate students and in charge of her own research laboratory which, funded by grants from the National Institute of Health, performs research around genes that confer antibiotic resistance on strains of bacteria. She is Director of the university’s Natural History Collection and co-founded Origins Microbial LLC, a venture concentrating on development of organic, narrow-spectrum drugs.
Margaret has always had great interest in promoting the sciences, particularly recruiting young students to the field. To that end, Margaret founded the Massachusetts Academy of Sciences in 2007, an achievement she is “most proud of, it is a legacy of my life work”. With a board composed of 45 Nobel Laureates and the state’s leading scientists and educators, the academy provides a network for education, outreach and research that connects universities, scientists, teachers, parents and children across Massachusetts.
The Walpole Alumni Association salutes Peg Riley, Class of ’77, as our Alumnus of the month and for her contributions to Massachusetts and the scientific community.