May 2007 Mentor of the Month Interview: Michael Astion
Biography
  1. What is your job title and affiliation?
  2. Briefly tell us about your educational and career background
  3. What are your Board certifications?
  4. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
  5. Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself.
Career
  1. What area(s) do you specialize in?
  2. What initiated your interest in this (these) area(s) and how did you eventually choose this (these) area(s) for your career?
  3. What are your clinical and research interests?
  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
  5. Are there specific aspects of practicing laboratory medicine that you find unappealing?
  6. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
  7. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
  8. What excites you about practicing laboratory medicine everyday?
  9. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
  10. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
  11. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
  12. Describe how you have been able to give back or contribute to the organizations and the profession in general through your involvement in AACC.
  13. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
  14. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
Biography
  1. What is your job title and affiliation?
    Affiliation: University of Washington , Department of Laboratory Medicine, Seattle, WA. My academic rank is currently Associate Professor of Laboratory Medicine. I recently was promoted to full professor, which goes into effect on July 1, 2007.
    My job titles are:
    • Director of Reference Laboratory Services
    • Associate Director, Chemistry Division
    • Associate Director Immunology Division
    • Associate Director, Medical Informatics Division
  2. Briefly tell us about your educational and career background.
    In 1983, I graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca , NY with a major in Biology. In 1989, I completed the M.D., Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania . This was under the auspices of the NIH Medical Scientist Training Program. My Ph.D. was in Neuroscience. The first half of my clinical pathology residency was in the University of Pennsylvania Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and then I completed the residency in 1993 in the University of Washington Department of Laboratory Medicine.
  3. What are your Board certifications?
    I am board certified in clinical pathology by the American Board of Pathology.
  4. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
    I am most active in AACC, but I am also active in ACLPS ( Academy of Clinical Laboratory Physicians and Scientists). I do occasional talks for CLMA and ASCLS.
  5. Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself:
    • Family
      I have been married for 17 years. I have two lovely daughters age 7 and 4 who were adopted from Korea. I have an unusually lovely and interesting cat named Jenny.
    • Favorite activities/hobbies
      My favorite hobby is hitting the speed bag, and I recently started working as a volunteer in rehabilitation medicine to help injured children use the speed bag as part of their rehabilitation. It is especially good for kids in wheelchairs. I am a bicycle commuter, and have driven my car to work only once in the last year.
    • Favorite book/movie
      My favorite television show growing up was the Odd Couple. My current favorites are the King of Queens and Desperate Housewives.
Career
  1. What area(s) do you specialize in?
    For most of my job, I am not highly specialized. I am a generalist with an interest in overall laboratory operations, management, education, and business development. My job is equal parts clinical service, teaching, and research, and I have also had the opportunity to participate in a number of entrepreneurial endeavors. My special interests are: 1) patient safety, and 2) clinical immunology with an emphasis on autoantibody testing and protein electrophoresis.
  2. What initiated your interest in this (these) area(s) and how did you eventually choose this (these) area(s) for your career?
    I chose laboratory medicine as a medical specialty because it is a nice mix of science, business, and management, and it serves the interest of sick people. The practice of medicine has many advantages, but certainly one of them is that we have a good mission, and this helps us avoid the crisis of meaning that afflicts so many other lines of work. I became interested in clinical immunology early in my clinical laboratory career because there were opportunities at the University of Washington in this area. I was interested in developing educational software and two of my earliest titles were ANA-Tutor (Anti-Nuclear Antibodies) and Electrophoresis-Tutor. I started developing an interest in patient safety in the late 1990s and was able to take a sabbatical in 2001 to explore this area. I have been working on aspects of patient safety ever since.
  3. What are your clinical and research interests?
    Most of my current clinical interests involve improving our clinical laboratory services. The large clinical projects I am currently involved in are:
    • development and expansion of our telephone call center
    • a multi-departmental effort to decrease errors in patient identification and specimen quality
    • decreasing turnaround time and data entry errors through expansion of our client computer interfaces
    • developing a patient safety culture
    • My research interests are closely integrated with my clinical work. I have a number of active patient safety and competency assessment projects including:
    • measuring the rate of laboratory-related adverse events in a variety of laboratory settings
    • estimating national competency in several areas of laboratory testing using our computer-based competency assessment product (Medical Training Solutions, Seattle, WA )
  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
    Lately, my most important contributions have come in advocating strong patient safety interventions in clinical laboratories through my lectures and through our newsletter, Laboratory Errors and Patient Safety, which is a collaboration between the University of Washington and other institutions, most notably Mayo Clinic and ARUP. The other contribution that I am proud of is that I am one of the founders, along with Dr. Mark Wener and Adam Orkand, of a trademarked line of computer-based tutorials and competency assessment. This is currently an online subscription service offered through a publishing company, Medical Training Solutions, that spun out of our Department in 2001. The subscription service is used in over 1000 laboratory facilities worldwide. Currently, more than 40,000 unique individuals complete 120,000 competency assessment exams annually in more than 25 areas of laboratory medicine. I am proud of this work for many reasons, but the best part of it is that it has been a very positive collaboration between the staff and faculty. I am not sure if another academic institution in the U.S. could have pulled this off. We really have great teamwork and the software endeavor is a great example of it. It is a great thrill to see so many people benefit from our work.
  5. Are there specific aspects of practicing laboratory medicine that you find unappealing?
    Yes, laboratory medicine, as I practice it, is a purely cerebral activity that takes place mostly in a basement. I could use some more exercise, and sunlight.
  6. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
    There are so many rewarding moments in this job, especially working daily with colleagues that I respect and enjoy, developing and carrying out CME courses, completing educational software, mentoring laboratory medicine residents, and accomplishing significant quality improvement in clinical services. Another big highlight was winning the AACC Patient Safety Award in 2006. I also have thoroughly enjoyed some of my consulting work, especially that related to autoantibody testing and patient safety.
  7. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
    Even though it works, I would not recommend my approach, which I call "extreme inflexibility of scheduling". It is based on the philosophy that good habits are difficult to develop but hard to break. I tend to wake up the same time every day, have the same morning routine, leave for work the same time and get home the exact same time. I limit my number of travel days to a fixed number of days each year. This means having to say no to some talks. My relatively inflexible schedule allows me to get my work done, but also assures exercise, plenty of time with my family, and some time for volunteer work. My philosophy would only work for people who enjoy living a conventional, highly-structured life.
  8. What excites you about practicing laboratory medicine everyday?
    This is a bit of a loaded question. I like my work. It is a dignified, decent, and challenging profession, but it is hard to be excited about it everyday because sometimes it is just plain hard. At this point, my main motivations for getting to work are collegiality and the desire to improve my workplace. Over the next 20 years, the thing that excites me is the chance to help young faculty become successful. I feel like I can contribute more to the field of laboratory medicine by helping make other people and organizations successful rather than by any future discovery of mine.
  9. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
    Automation and standardization and other strong patient safety interventions are what excite me most about the laboratory of the future. In our laboratory, automation is going to be a huge factor for productivity improvements and error reduction.
  10. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
    It is not easy to simultaneously ask great scientific questions, execute the science necessary to come up with answers, and raise the money to fund it all in an environment whose regulatory complexity is growing.
  11. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
    If you are in an academic institution, then early in your career you must create a niche for yourself, as this is often a necessity for promotion. This requires saying no to many requests for work that are outside that niche. Later, after you have completed the up-or-out promotion to Associate Professor, you can broaden your interests.
  12. Describe how you have been able to give back or contribute to the organizations and the profession in general through your involvement in AACC.
    AACC is my favorite professional organization. I have served in a number of capacities I am currently head of the patient safety taskforce. Previously, I have been a member of the Annual Meeting Organizing Committee and a number of other committees. I try to present science and talks at a variety of AACC meetings. One recent contribution I started was a small medical technology scholarship in my parents' name at the University of Washington . I wanted to honor their hard work and all the education they provided. I hope to build this up to a significant scholarship over time.
  13. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
    I was mentored at the University of Pennsylvania by two past presidents of the AACC, Peter Wilding and Larry Kricka. They first got me involved in AACC and I am very grateful to them for introducing me to many people, especially through networking at the annual meeting. In the early 1990s, through AACC meetings and activities, I met a number of people at Sanofi Diagnostics (now Bio-Rad) including Gary Tremain, Dr. Daniel Merle, and Tom Williamson, and we formed a collaboration related to autoimmune disease education that has been going for 14 years and has produced a line of educational software as well as educational symposia. Similarly, I met Dr. Jack Zackowski and Marv Goldsmith of Beckman-Coulter in the early 1990s and I have had some collaboration with Beckman ever since, starting with the Electrophoresis-Tutor educational software and continuing to this days with educational exchanges on issues related to patient safety. More recently, our departmental --and my personal-- relationships with Mayo Clinic and ARUP have been helped by frequent contact through AACC and ACLPS activities. These types of connections have made a huge difference in my career and have benefited all the organizations who have collaborated.
  14. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
    Try to get involved with a group of colleagues who can encourage you, stimulate you, and hold you accountable to some reasonable ethical standard. A man or woman left to their own devices can often go down the wrong road, and I have seen this many times now, even among the most highly educated. There is no underestimating the power of a great workplace. I am so grateful for the personal accountability and encouragement provided by my colleagues at the University of Washington . I think I would be a much lesser person, if I was not helped by these colleagues. I could thank so many people at UW, since all my success has been of a collaborative nature, but I have to give a special thanks to Dr. Mark Wener who has advocated for me at every stage of my career, and who has been a role model of ethical and selfless conduct. Similarly, Dr. Paul Strandjord, who was our original Chairman, and Dr. Jim Fine, our current chairman, have been thoroughly supportive. Dr. Dave Chou also should be pointed out for his friendship and stimulating discussion on all issues related to laboratory quality, house repair, and cars.
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