Michael Quilliam graduated with a PhD in chemistry in 1977 from University of Manitoba after researching chemical derivatization, chromatography and mass spectrometry of nucleic acids. Post-doctoral research at Université de Montréal and a one-year position with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment gave him experience in mass spectrometry and environmental contaminants. From 1978 to 1987, he served as assistant and then associate professor of analytical chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at McMaster University. His research focused on the detection and identification of carcinogens and their metabolites and the development of analytical methods based on liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry.
In 1987, Quilliam joined the National Research Council of Canada, where he is now principal research officer in the Biotoxin Metrology group in Halifax. He is also an adjunct professor of chemistry at Dalhousie University. His research at NRCC has focused on the analytical chemistry of toxic substances and the production of certified reference materials (CRMs). He has worked on environmental and food contaminants that include polycyclic aromatic compounds, veterinary drug residues, and marine and freshwater biotoxins. The methods and CRMs that he and his group have developed are in routine use in regulatory laboratories worldwide.