December 2006 Mentor of the Month Interview: Gregory Tsongalis
- What is your job title and affiliation?
I am currently an Associate Professor of Pathology at the Dartmouth Medical School and the Director of Molecular Pathology at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
- Briefly tell us about your educational and career background.
I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where I majored in Zoology and minored in Chemistry. Two weeks after graduation, I started a P.A. program in Pathology at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, CT. It was around this time that oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes were becoming hot topics and with all of the human cancers I saw as a P.A., I decided to enter a Ph.D. Program in Pathology. At the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, NJ, I studied DNA repair mechanisms under the direction of Drs. Clark and Muriel Lambert while always trying to correlate findings back to the human cancers I witnessed first hand. My first post-doc took me to the Pathology Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I continued my molecular oncology training in the laboratory of Dr. David Kaufman. Nearing the completion of this two year fellowship, I happened to share an office with the Chief resident who asked me what my plans were. I expressed an interest in doing something a little more clinical related, but what could a Ph.D. do? She introduced me to the world of Laboratory Medicine and the training programs at UNC. I joined the Clinical Chemistry training program under the direction of John Chapman and trained mostly in the Clinical Molecular Genetics Laboratory with Dr. Larry Silverman. Upon completion of this fellowship, two prominent clinical chemists (George Bowers and Bob McComb) had retired at Hartford Hospital in CT. With three existing clinical chemists, the department (actually Alan Wu) sought to recruit a molecular pathologist. As they say, the rest is history!
- What are your Board certifications?
I am board certified as a High Complexity Clinical Laboratory Director by AAB and NCA.
- With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
- American Association for the Advancement of Science
- American Association for Cancer Research
- American Association for Clinical Chemistry
- American Society of Human Genetics
- American Society for Investigative Pathology
- American Society for Microbiology
- Association for Molecular Pathology
- New Hampshire Medical Society
- Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself:
I have two beautiful children, Peter (11) and Zoe (8) and a spectacular wife who puts up with all the craziness. I love to fish, both salt and fresh water, mountain bike, and ski (although I am just learning and admit to being scared to death). I spend as much time with my family as is possible and enjoy being a kid with my kids.
- What area(s) do you specialize in?
I focus on diagnostic issues in Molecular Pathology. I have been very fortunate to have very qualified and highly skilled staff working with me in my labs. My clinical lab performs molecular tests for genetic, infectious and malignant diseases as well as pharmacogenomic and targeted therapeutic applications. Our translational research lab focuses on similar issues at a more preliminary stage of discovery.
- What initiated your interest in this (these) area(s) and how did you eventually choose this (these) area(s) for your career?
I think what I saw clinically in the P.A. program really had a major impact on my future plans. That and the fact that molecular biology promised to unravel a lot of the unknown was very exciting to me.
- What are your clinical and research interests?
Both my clinical interests and research interests overlap quite a bit. I am very interested in oncology and spend a lot of time thinking about new assays and biomarkers that could impact patient management. New diagnostics and therapeutics are where we will put most of our efforts. Oncology is an area that has not fully appreciated what we can do at the molecular level and so every day brings a new and exciting challenge. I also am interested in infectious diseases because of the sheer impact on the healthcare system, the toll these diseases take on individuals and the capabilities we currently have to make things better.
- What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
I think the contributions that I and my staff have made are rather small in the grand scheme of things. The plan has always been to promote this new laboratory science of molecular diagnostics and to push the technologies as far as we can and then some. I or we have tried to address the critical need for education of students, residents, physicians, faculty, etc., by as many different avenues as possible. I am fortunate to have a great colleague and friend in Bill Coleman who puts up with and supports my lame brain ideas for books and other materials that we think are necessary to meet this education challenge.
- Are there specific aspects of practicing laboratory medicine that you find unappealing?
Funding is always an issue no matter which track you pursue career-wise. It is all relative. I think one aspect that no one is actually trained for is the administrative part of the job. While the science is still fun and awesome, having to deal with admin issues sometimes can be a real pain.
- What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
I have been very fortunate on a number of different fronts with my family and career. I think one of the most rewarding aspects for me though is that I was part of making a dream come true. My parents and grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in hopes of having a better life for themselves and for their families. They wanted to experience the American Dream. I think that my career has reflected positively on that dream and it is a warm feeling knowing that they would be very proud.
- How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
This is one of the most difficult things to balance, but one that I feel should not be compromised. I once asked my dad if he wanted me to run out and get him a lottery ticket for one of those record breaking giveaways. He sat me down and said work hard at being the best you can be at what you do, the rest will fall into place. This may seem a difficult task with the pressures we are exposed to in our careers. My golden rule of thumb is to give 150% effort while I am at work with little time for nonsense. I get to my office very early in the morning in order to get a lot done before the phone starts ringing and then just don’t stop until the day is over. Part of this rule is that I am home for dinner every night except for when I travel. Work hard and play hard because life is too short.
- What excites you about practicing laboratory medicine everyday?
We couldn’t be in a better position to experience and help bring to fruition the many changes that are coming down the pike. Knowing that what we do will have an impact on a patient and their families makes the hectic day worth it.
- What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
I think we will be able to do things a lot better and with an unprecedented clinical utility. This will lead to new discoveries, therapeutics, and cost savings.
- What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
I think the biggest challenge is getting your foot in the door, obtaining the proper training, and then knowing how to apply what you learned.
- What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
Try and be the best. Don’t get frustrated and distracted easily. Make a mark by utilizing national organizations like the AACC sections. Introduce yourself to one new person at any gathering you attend, scientific or not.
- Describe how you have been able to give back or contribute to the organizations and the profession in general through your involvement in AACC.
I have tried to give back to the scientific community through involvement in the AACC and other professional organizations. In addition, sometimes all it takes is lending a helping hand, a listening ear, or just being a good friend or mentor.
- How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
Introduce yourself as often as possible. Attend meetings and committee meetings. Volunteer to be a section officer (i.e. nominating committee, liaison, you don’t have to run for president!).
- Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
Be as creative as possible in doing what you want and how you will do it. There are no rules cast in stone for your career. The opportunities are many and very different than from when I started. The difficulty is thinking outside the box to find them. In any case, be happy and enjoy what you do and life will be fantastic!