- What is your job title and affiliation?
I am the Clinical Director of Chemistry and the Metabolic Disease Laboratory at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, Texas, and an associate professor of Pathology and Medical Laboratory Sciences at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
- Briefly tell us about your educational and career background.
I graduated from Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas with a PhD in Molecular Biology and a minor in Biochemistry. I originally got my PhD because I love school and didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just kept going to school! Toward the end of my doctoral degree schooling I took a job at UT Southwestern Medical School running cyclosporine by HPLC for the county hospital. That job introduced me to laboratory medicine and to Dr. Paul VanDreal, a clinical chemist with a clinical chemistry fellowship position available, and I began learning exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
- What are your Board certifications?
I am a diplomate of the ABCC in chemistry and a fellow of the NACB.
- With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
Besides the AACC, I am a member of the National Academy of Clinical Biochemists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Clinical Laboratory Science, the Association of Clinical Biochemists, the Children’s Health Improvement through Laboratory Diagnostics (ChilDx) Advisory Board, and the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine Task Force on Pediatrics.
- Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself:
I’m single with two middle-aged cats. I have three sisters and a brother, multiple nieces and nephews and two grand-nieces. I love to hike in Utah’s national parks when I get the chance, especially the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion Canyon National Park. I like to travel internationally, with my trip to the IFCC Congress in Kyoto, Japan in 2002 being one of my favorite trips. I’m also an avid reader, especially science fiction. I’d have a hard time picking a favorite book, but it would probably be one by C.J Cherryh. The most adventurous thing I’ve probably done is to take flying lessons and get my private pilot certificate.
- What area(s) do you specialize in?
Pediatric laboratory medicine and metabolic disease testing.
- What initiated your interest in this (these) area(s) and how did you eventually choose this (these) area(s) for your career?
I was lucky enough to do my clinical chemistry fellowship at an institution that is associated with an outstanding children’s hospital where I did a rotation. Toward the end of my fellowship, they were hiring a PhD laboratorian to oversee the lab where they were assaying amino acids and just beginning to bring in testing for organic acids. I took the position and not too long after that, Dr. Michael Bennett came to Children’s as Director of the lab and taught me everything I know about metabolic disease testing.
- What are your clinical and research interests?
My clinical interests are mainly in the diagnosis of inborn errors of metabolism, although I have also been very involved in all aspects of pediatric lab medicine, especially pediatric reference intervals. My research interests are in a relatively specific area of metabolic disease: fatty acid oxidation disorders.
- What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
As Chair of the PMF Division I began holding meetings for anyone interested in pediatric reference intervals. Originally intended to simply bring together interested parties and try to find an approach to standardize age-related reference intervals, the meetings have been held every year since 2005 and have spawned an association with the NIH National Children’s Study (NCS) and a Pediatric Reference Range Committee within the AACC. This group is working toward a proposal to the NCS for access to samples from their proposed 100,000 study subjects. Beyond that, I’ve hopefully convinced a decade of medical technologists that laboratory medicine is the correct career choice, and inspired some of them to go on and to be more involved.
- Are there specific aspects of practicing laboratory medicine that you find unappealing?
I’m more of a scientist and less of a manager, so the management aspect of lab medicine has been something of a struggle for me. Dealing with people management took a while for me to learn. Also, it’s only fairly recently that I’ve come to appreciate how important systems-thinking and well-structured processes are to the overall success of the lab.
- What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
The most rewarding moments for me generally have to do with the kids we diagnose with inborn errors of metabolism in time to affect their prognosis and their lives. Shortly after I started in this field, we diagnosed a child with tyrosinemia within days of her birth. Two years ago her Mom gave me a picture of her ready for her high school senior prom and told me of her plans for college. Moments like that are incredibly rewarding. As far as challenging, after I had been here a few years, a section of the lab that I was responsible for closed because that particular testing was no longer required. For a short while I wasn’t sure I would continue to have a job at this place that I love, and I had to re-create my job and my focus.
- How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
Leave work at work!! I’m not a raging workaholic, but I usually work 9-10 hour days. Once I leave here though, I almost NEVER take work home with me. Even when I’m on call, I leave work at work as much as I possibly can.
- What excites you about practicing laboratory medicine everyday?
Knowing I’m making a difference every day in the lives of patients is what excites me about practicing lab medicine. That and teaching. I love to teach and seeing those light bulbs go on over my student’s heads is pretty fun. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a job that I continue to love to go to every day, even after doing it for 20 years.
- What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
I predict that we’ll see a continued and increasing reliance of computers, automation and electronics. We will be increasingly connected, and that’s going to absolutely require us to use systems and methodologies with traceable or commutable results. It also opens up huge opportunities for connection to experts whenever we need them. I think we’ll be able to stop ‘re-inventing the wheel’ each time a new assay is developed, as reagents, standards and PROCESSES become standardized. Okay, this sounds more like hopes than predictions, but I would really like to see these things in the future.
- What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
To me, one of the biggest challenges that faces young scientists in lab medicine is having enough patience and perseverance. There are many places very much in need of the enthusiasm and fresh perspective embodied by the SYCL members, the new laboratorians starting out now. However, many of those places are hidebound. They do things a certain way because they’ve always done them that way. The challenge is in taking the time and effort to change the way things are done, without alienating too many people along the way! Occasionally it’s not possible. Something being done incorrectly must be fixed ASAP, and proceeding on that course takes its own kind of courage. But it’s also possible to make changes at a pace that’s ‘tolerable to the older folk’.
- What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
I read somewhere that “Every time you aim nowhere, you get there.” I believe it’s important to have goals all the way through your career, not just at the beginning. Starting out a new job/career I would recommend setting yourself the goal of learning your individual system well. Clearly understand what the current reality is and then devise ways to improve it. Any system can be improved. Don’t expect that a new job will be perfect immediately. Sometimes it takes hard work and patience. However, try to always keep a clear enough perspective that you can see when you need to reset your own goals, and when your personal goals don’t match the system goals and it’s time to move on.
- Describe how you have been able to give back or contribute to the organizations and the profession in general through your involvement in AACC.
My involvement with the AACC started out as secretary of the Pediatric and Maternal-Fetal Division. I went from there to Chair of the Division and I’m currently on the Divisions Management Group, the 2010 AMOC, the Professional Practice in Clinical Chemistry Organizing Committee, the Pediatric Reference Range Committee, the Board of Directors of the NACB and am Chair-elect of the Texas Section. I’m also on the Advisory Board of an initiative out of ARUP called Children’s Health Improvement through Laboratory Diagnostics and on the Pediatric Task force of the IFCC. I’m always looking for ways to improve the practice of lab medicine and especially pediatric lab medicine. As much as I hope to have contributed to the profession and the AACC, the gain has been mostly on my part, through the interactions with amazing people, the learning experiences, the ability to contact colleagues all over the world for answers to problems, and to help them solve their problems in return. The contacts and the friends I’ve made are the most valuable resources.
- How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
Mike Bennett got me involved with the PMF Division initially. Once you begin meeting people and making contacts, it becomes easier and easier to say yes to other involvement. My advice is to not bypass opportunities when they arise. If you don’t know anyone, but you have a specific area of interest, contact the Division or your Local Section and express an interest in being involved. And whatever you do, when someone asks you to help on a committee or run for an office, say “yes”! We all learn by doing.
- Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
One of the most noticeable characteristics I’ve seen in SYCL members is a willingness to step up and get involved, coupled with an enthusiasm for the profession. I think that these are incredibly valuable attributes that you bring to the profession and I encourage you to keep making contacts and strengthening our society as you build your careers. Also, Albert Schweitzer once said, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing you will be successful.” I advise the SYCL members to find something they love to do, and do it well.