August 2011 Mentor of the Month Interview: Mario Plebani
Biography & Career
  1. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
    I have been a member of the AACC since 1982, and since 2004, I have served on the AACC Patient Safety Advisory Group and as a member of the International Advisory Group. I am an active member of several other professional societies and organizations. In particular, I am a member of the Italian Society for Clinical Biochemistry and Clinical Molecular Biology (SIBioC), and served as President in 2003 and from 2006 to 2009. I am member and was President (2004-2008) of the International Society of Enzymology (ISE). I am chair of a working group on Laboratory Errors and Patient Safety of the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine (IFCC). I am also member of the Association for Clinical Biochemistry (ACB) in the UK, and Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists and of the National Academy of Clinical Biochemistry.
  2. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
    Since the beginning of my training in laboratory medicine, I have understood the importance of active membership in scientific and professional organizations to continuously improve and update my knowledge and to meet colleagues and experts in different areas of the discipline. I truly value the friendships I have established through my involvement in these organizations both with colleagues from Italy and throughout the World. My personal advice to young people is to be involved in scientific and professional organizations so you may learn from champions in the different fields of our discipline and to adopt and use best practices in your routine work.
  3. What area(s) do you specialize in and what initiated your interest in this (these) area(s)?
    I am Full Professor of Clinical Biochemistry, and therefore my main interest is clinical biochemistry, particularly in biomarkers of cancer, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, I am strongly involved in the area of quality in laboratory medicine, both analytical and extra-analytical quality. I became interested in these areas because of the need to support the clinical decision making process with valuable laboratory information and because of the importance of new biomarkers for the diagnosis and follow-up of cancer diseases.
  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
    The most important contribution I have made to the field of laboratory medicine was the analysis of the frequency and distribution of errors in the total testing process. Namely my work provided evidence that the pre- and post-analytical phases are much more vulnerable to errors than the analytical phase and also demonstrated the actual and potential effects of laboratory errors on patient safety.
  5. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
    The most rewarding moments of my carrier have been (a) the appointment as Full Professor at my University, (b) the AACC Award for Outstanding Clinical Laboratory Contributions to Improving Patient Safety in 2008, and (c) the appointment as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine (CCLM) in 2009.
  6. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
    I am not sure that I have achieved an optimal work/life balance, and therefore you should ask my wife, my son, and my co-workers if this is true. In fact, I have tried to achieve a respectable level of expertise and a good reputation within my profession and job, without missing my family-related duties and the pleasure to spend time with my wife and with my son when he was young. However, after many years, I have to admit that I have lost the opportunity to enjoy some of my hobbies (e.g. play tennis, trekking in mountains, etc) and to socialize with friends due to commitments related to my job.
  7. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
    The translation of “omics” into clinical practice and the future role of the developing field of personalized medicine represent the most challenging issues for clinical laboratories. In particular, as genomics may revolutionize clinical laboratory diagnostics, there will be a need to appropriately train laboratory professionals beyond the analytical aspects. The role of laboratory professionals, in fact, will be to integrate data with other pertinent information in the medical record and produce clinically actionable recommendations for assuring a high quality of care. Pharmacogenomics is the paradigm of the need to integrate analytical and clinical information to provide appropriateness in test request and interpretation, as demonstrated in the case of warfarin, tamoxifen and other anticancer agents. Next-generation comprehensive genome analysis technologies require high levels of expertise in analytical techniques and deep knowledge of pathology, pathobiology, and clinical medicine. Clinical proteomics represents another formidable opportunity for laboratory professionals to apply their knowledge in searching for new and reliable biomarkers.
  8. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
    There are many challenges facing young scientists as laboratory medicine is no longer viewed by some administrators as a complex and academic discipline but as a factory in which technology and automation are able to produce millions of results in a few minutes. Clinical laboratories are under siege from two sides, the former being the trend toward viewing laboratory services as a commodity, and the latter the widespread introduction of point-of-care testing. Laboratory professionals are struggling in the middle of these perils and I liken this to the famous story of Odysseus who tried to navigate between two monsters, Scylla and Charybdis. To avoid the collapse of our profession, we need to achieve a new and improved level of professionalism and the role of laboratory professionals must become more visible to all stakeholders, including patients.
  9. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
    The first goal is to continuously update your knowledge, as laboratory medicine is a very dynamic discipline. Training at the University is essential but not enough. The second goal is to remember the importance of teamwork as the provision of high-quality laboratory service cannot be assured without collaboration and co-operation with clinicians, nurses, and patients. Third, I would like to invite young scientists to play an active role in our scientific community by attending meetings, reading and submitting articles, and accepting the role of reviewers for accredited journals.
  10. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
    I believe that if a young scientist is already a member of the Society for Young Clinical Laboratorians, this is a good sign. It signifies that he/she already appreciates the need to be part of the scientific community and to share his/her knowledge and experiences with others. My advice is to remain an unpretentious person and to recognize the need to continuously improve your knowledge.
  11. Can you provide a tip for interviewing job candidates?
    Unfortunately, in Italy there is no interview for job candidates, as the bureaucracy requests formal examinations with many rules that require compliance. It is likely that this system does not allow one to verify the appropriateness of the training or the adequacy of a particular candidate for the specific job, but this is life.
  12. If you could start your career again, what would you do differently?
    I would like to spend more time in basic research and in improving my knowledge in genomics, as well as dedicate more time for attending clinical wards and discussing clinical cases. When I studied at my University, the knowledge in the field of molecular biology and genetics was limited and their application in the clinical laboratory was essentially zero. At the beginning of my employment I had to spend a lot of hours in activities including phlebotomy and reading haematological and urinary slides at the microscope. Even the support of the information technology was limited and I had to spend time in revising analytical results and in signing laboratory reports. Now, times are changed, and young scientists may focus on activities for which they are more appropriately qualified. However, I believe that I am a very lucky man as I achieved a position that was unimaginable when I decided to enter medical school.
  13. What is an average day like in your life?
    I start my day early in the morning, about 7:30 A.M., as the first part of the day is the most productive for reading e-mail and looking at the day’s agenda. Immediately after this, I begin to check for papers coming to the journal (CCLM) or for those requiring a final decision on the basis of the peer-review. I am very lucky as my home is within walking distance (3 minutes) from my laboratory. Usually I take a break for a light lunch at 1 PM and am back in the laboratory by 2 PM. Finally, I leave for the day at 7 PM. During the day, I have many engagements, including those for organizing and supervising the work of the clinical laboratory, for teaching at the University, and for discussing research projects.
  14. What is your most effective time management skill?
    Early in my career, I attended a course on effective time management and learned some useful lessons. However, there is no magic formula to reduce wastes in time and energy and any individual should find the best solution for themselves. For example understanding which part of the day is his/her most productive. Some people prefer to concentrate their more challenging activities in the early morning –and this is the case for me- while other individuals are more productive later on, namely during the night. I suggest young scientists prepare a daily agenda which focuses on the most important activities and remembering to leave time to handle trivial issues when you will be more relaxed. Finally, an important lesson is to bring work-related documents home only when really necessary.
  15. Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself.
    • Family: I am married to Maria Laura and I have a son, aged 28, who has a degree in philosophy. My wife and I are both medical doctors, and my son’s decision is clear evidence that I am a liberal, as he decided without any imposition.
    • Favorite activities/hobbies: My favourite hobbies are mountain skiing and bicycle riding.
    • Favorite places you have traveled: I loved trips to Australia and to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks in the US. My favourite cities are New York, Boston and San Francisco in the US, Paris in France and the sea in Greece.
    • Favorite book/movie: I love all classic books but my favourite books are The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Disgrace and other books by J. M. Coetzee. In addition, I like the books of Andrea Camilleri, an Italian writer. My favorite movies are Dead Poets Society by Peter Lindsay Weir and The Bridges of Madison Countyby Clint Eastwood. In addition, I love all movies by Federico Fellini, and by Sergio Leone (in particular, The Good The Bad and The Ugly).
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