June 2011 Mentor of the Month Interview: Amy Saenger
Biography & Career
  1. What is your job title and affiliation?
    I am Director of Cardiovascular Laboratory Medicine, a specialty laboratory within the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I also direct our Clinical Chemistry Fellowship Program and am an Assistant Professor of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.
  2. How did you discover lab medicine/science?
    After my freshman year of college I was fortunate enough to receive a summer research grant from the American Heart Association to conduct research in a clinical laboratory. I had no idea what I was getting into! I ended up in Dr. Fred Apple’s laboratory at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He gave me my first exposure to clinical chemistry and cardiovascular biomarkers, keeping me busy with clinical research on CK-MB and troponin assays. Needless to say, at that point I was determined to become a clinical chemist and excited by all of the prospects laboratory medicine had to offer. Fred has remained an important mentor in my life and has made a major impact in my life and career.
  3. What is an average day in the workplace like?
    Every day is completely different! I spend much of my time developing and implementing research ideas and directing development work in the clinical lab to yield assays which are directly relevant to patient care. I also spend a fair amount of time in the education realm, directing our clinical chemistry fellowship and teaching residents and fellows fundamentals of cardiovascular lab medicine during their rotations.
  4. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
    I am involved in AACC, primarily with SYCL but also with the Midwest Local Section and the Annual Meeting Organizing Committee. I currently serve on the Clinical Laboratory News Board of Editors and represent AACC on subcommittees within The Society of Chest Pain Centers. I am also involved with the National Academy of Clinical Biochemistry (NACB), the Commission on Accreditation in Clinical Chemistry (ComACC), the Academy of Clinical Laboratory Physicians and Scientists (ACLPS), and the American Heart Association (AHA).
  5. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
    I was lucky enough to be exposed to a few opportunities very early on, and one thing inevitably just led to another. I have been fortunate to connect with mentors on a variety of aspects in my career, from research to management/leadership to education. I am also not particularly shy about expressing my interests and would recommend to other SYCL members to take initiative and voice interest if you see an opportunity or want to become involved!
  6. What area(s) do you specialize in and what initiated your interest in this (these) area(s)?
    The first few years out of fellowship I directed a high-volume automated core laboratory at the Mayo Clinic which gave me tremendous opportunities for intellectual growth and exposure to a wide variety of clinical chemistry areas and issues. However, my passion truly lies in the realm of cardiovascular disease (in the broadest sense) with a particular interest in lipids and biomarkers involved in acute coronary syndromes, heart failure, and oxidative stress. I was lucky enough to specialize in this area and now direct the Cardiovascular Laboratory. My interests were initiated by early exposure to the field and by being surrounded by great people with fabulous ideas!
  7. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
    I don’t think I can adequately answer this question, hopefully in the future! There are definitely things I am proud of to have worked on and contributed to but nothing that I would say defines me at this point.
  8. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
    I find teaching to be tremendously rewarding, as growth of fellows and residents tends to be a very tangible and visible thing as they progress through our programs. Observing others succeed is very gratifying. The biggest challenge is trying to balance career and family and I don’t know that there can ever be a perfect balance between the two. My husband and I have four children so life is certainly busy!
  9. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
    An optimal work/life balance is completely dependent on the individual and so there is never a perfect answer that will work for everyone. I attempt to prioritize issues and projects at work so I can leave work at work. It doesn’t always happen of course, and as I’m answering these questions I’m also helping my daughter with a spelling quiz. I also believe it is important to not take things or yourself too seriously and laugh—a lot! I am lucky to have colleagues who are also some of my closest friends and we definitely make work fun.
  10. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
    I believe advances in laboratory medicine, in particular cardiovascular laboratory medicine, will come when we can show value in answering the question “so what?”. Meaning just because you can develop an assay for x, y, or z doesn’t mean that you should unless it answers a clinically relevant question. Asking the right questions and providing useful interpretive information regarding laboratory testing, whether its evaluation of sequential results or interpreting genetic and biochemical results in tandem, I would like to think will be key in the future. Advances in laboratory medicine will come when there are new innovative and creative ways to communicate and interpret relevant information to our clinical colleagues.
  11. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
    It is very difficult to keep up with the expanding scope of clinical chemistry, with the breadth of new technologies and testing, without specializing in some way. However most people are able to define some area that excites them and potentially focusing on that development is a good way to start.
  12. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
    Define short and long term goals, because it is easy to get caught up in daily issues, problems, and meetings. Long term goals do not need to be too far out in the future but periodic reassessment of goals is important. Make a few goals top priority and work on them persistently!
  13. What is your favorite textbook or article you’ve read?
    Literature surrounding research from the Bogalusa Heart Study is fascinating, in particular: Association between Multiple Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Atherosclerosis in Children and Young Adults; Berenson GS et al, NEJM 1998 338:1650-1656. These studies demonstrate that development of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and hypertension all begin in early childhood with pathological changes noted as early as age 5. Highly recommended for those interested in epidemiology and cardiovascular disease!
  14. What is the riskiest thing you’ve done?
    Skydiving! Or having four children. Depends on the day…
  15. What is the most important leadership skill?
    There are lots of important skills but I would have to say integrity is key. Integrity promotes trust and you cannot accomplish much without trust.
  16. Tell us a fact about yourself that is not common knowledge.
    Generally I like to take risks but not when it comes to food—I am a very picky eater! Although anyone who has eaten a meal with me before knows that…condiments, strawberries, seafood, or generally anything with a lot of flavor I am adverse to. I will blame my bland taste buds on my Midwest upbringing.
  17. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
    Dr. Allan Jaffe, another influential mentor to me, said it best: “your strengths are your weaknesses and your weaknesses are your strengths”. When you think about that statement it is completely true and acknowledges that everyone is unique and brings something new to the table.
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