Lab Chat: How to Enter the Biomedical World Without Going to School for 100 Years

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Amar Desai is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Hematology/Oncology at Case Western Reserve University. When he’s not running away from code browns, he'll be showing up here every once in awhile to talk about the biomedical scene in Cleveland and talking with the smartest people in that world.

As this summer comes to a close I can’t help but wax nostalgic and think fondly about the previous summers of my youth. Whether it was baseball games at Desan Park in Richmond Heights, working as a maintenance boy at the City of Beachwood pool or playing street hockey with my brothers, I always enjoyed the great outdoors and the feel of the sun on my back.

Unfortunately the past 5 summers of my life involved being a maladjusted graduate student spending my days and nights in the lab, making friends with mice while dreaming of one day graduating. There’s no summer vacation as a Ph.D graduate student and so the closest feeling I had to the sun on my back was walking into the bacterial culture room (kept at a cozy 98° to facilitate bacterial growth). Now I’m not complaining, in fact I love what I do, but I also thought about how there’s a multitude of roads to enter the biomedical world that don’t involve defending a 150 page thesis in front of a room of under caffeinated professors looking to make you cry.

And so I wanted to spend this edition of lab chat talking to some people who enjoy a satisfying and exciting life in biomedical science but didn’t have to go to school for a hundred years to do so. From research assistants to department administrators to animal technicians, there’s a very large team of contributors that go into any research project and it’s time we heard their stories. Without further ado I present some words of advice from friends and colleagues of mine about how to directly interact with medical research and still maintain a semblance of sanity:

Markeya Owens, Animal Husbandry Manager- Case Western Reserve University

Describe your current job responsibilities:
I oversee the animal care operations. This includes assuring that all animals receive daily feed, water, cleaning and sanitation of the animal cages and their rooms. On a daily bases I’m a liaison to research personnel and I provide assistance and advice on their animal care issues.

How did you first get started in this field?:
I’ve always loved and had a passion for working with animals ever since I was a “wee” little thing. I initially went to Kansas State University on a full track scholarship to study Veterinarian Medicine but changed my major to Life Science because I wanted to graduate in four years. I originally started working as a Veterinary Technician in “94” in the Animal Resource Center at the Health Science Animal Facility. I was promoted to the Cage Wash Operations Manager in “02” and just recently I was promoted to the Animal Husbandry Manager at Wolstein.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into your line of work?:
Love what you do and have a passion for it. This field requires people who are passionate and caring for animals, animal research as well as people, not everyone is for animal research and sometimes the job can be tedious and monotonous. The bigger picture is that great research and cures are found because of the work my staff and I do.

John Pounardjian, Department Administrator- Case Western Reserve University

Describe your current job responsibilities:
As Department Administrator, I am responsible for all financial and operational aspects of the Markowitz Research laboratory. This includes, creating and maintaining budgets, grant submissions, personnel issues and other daily operational duties (ie. approving lab orders, etc). During a grant submission, my responsibilities involve the non-scientific requirements of the proposal including creating budgets and budget justifications, determining proper personnel to be included in the grant, and getting appropriate University approval for the submission. I am also responsible for hiring new personnel, completing annual reviews, and ensuring everyone has an enjoyable work environment.

How did you first get started in this field?:
I got my MBA from John Carroll University in 2008. I spent almost 8 years at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute as an intern and then coordinator of Recruiting and Development in their Research Education Office. My educational background is in Management/HR, so the Clinic recruiting gig was a good fit. Working in LRI, I developed a great interest in research administration. After speaking to a colleague at LRI, he forwarded my resume to Case CCC about the SPORE admin position and the rest is history.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into your line of work?:
What’s unique about an academic administration or research administration position is the fact that not many people are aware that they exist. Traditionally, they don’t teach research administration in business school. For those who are interested in such positions, my advice is to reach out to people on the job and express interest. There are many positions within a university or hospital that could expose you to the type of work performed by administrators – it’s just a matter of finding the right fit.

Gretchen Larusch, Research Assistant III- Case Western Reserve University

Describe your current job responsibilities:
In this position I oversee the management of the mouse colony, including genotyping (to characterize mutant mice strains). My main studies focus on a collaborative project, with my emphasis on liver experiments involving mouse surgery and data analysis. I also train other laboratory personnel, assist in general lab maintenance, and perform experiments on other laboratory projects as needed.

How did you first get started in this field?:
I graduated with a BS degree from Notre Dame College of Ohio in May of 1999. I made the decision not to apply for medical school, and wanted my future plans to be in research, as that is what really held my interest. I really enjoyed the actual experimentation and data analysis at the primary level. I spent the next 4 years at home raising my children. In October of 2003 I started working in the laboratory of Dr. Lindsey D. Mayo at CWRU. In the next couple of years I learned and taught various techniques, giving me a very well rounded skill set. When he left the university in 2005, I started working in and managing the laboratory of Alvin Schmaier. It was during that period that I learned animal procedures. We worked on factors that influenced thrombosis risk, which involved a lot of mouse surgery. I was also responsible for maintenance of our mouse colony involving mating and colony maintenance. I was hired into my current position in the lab of Dr. Sandy Markowitz in September of 2012.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into your line of work?:
The best advice I could give anyone, not even limiting it to this specific field, is that you can learn something from everyone, and that you should strive to learn as much as possible, every day. That is really my favorite part of research – you are constantly learning. Sometimes you are learning a new technique that you may be able to apply to future studies. Sometimes it’s a discovery of the mechanism of a cellular pathway that was unknown in your field. Sometimes it’s as simple as figuring out where you made a mistake, resulting in an unexpected data set. Scientific research is like putting together a puzzle, where each piece is a tiny bit of a victory over the unknown…and if you are lucky, in the end, the discovery you made may eventually help someone.

So there it is, I really want to thank Markeya, John and Gretchen for their time and candid answers. Hopefully this sheds some light on different paths one can take to get into biomedical research. We’re always looking for smart and ambitious people to keep our institutions running and there’s definitely more than one way to get your foot in the door. 

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