March 2012 Mentor of the Month: Maria Pasic
Biography & Career
  1. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
    I am a member of the AACC and CSCC (Canadian Society of Clinical Chemists). Within the AACC, I am a member of the Upstate New York Section and SYCL. I am currently serving on the SYCL workshop planning committee for the 2012 AACC meeting, and I am also the Program Chair for the 2012 Upstate New York Section meeting. I also recently joined the Molecular Pathology section of the AACC, as I am currently working in this area and want to learn about the opportunities that are available through the AACC for individuals with these interests.

    I also belong to the International Society of Kallikreins, and the International Society of Oncology and Biomarkers, and I am also on the conference planning committees for these societies for 2013. Joining committees within societies is a great way to make new friends and professional connections, as well as to gain experience in educational event planning. I highly recommend this to all SYCL members, no matter how early they may be in their careers.
  2. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
    I joined the AACC when I first realized that I had an interest in Clinical Chemistry, during my years as a PhD student. Although I did not attend conferences at that time, my membership gave me access to online tools, information and regular updates about the society, which kept me well informed about advances in the field and allowed for networking opportunities. Once I began my post-doctoral diploma program in Clinical Chemistry in Toronto, I also joined the CSCC.

    The CSCC is a much smaller group than the AACC and I found that it allowed for more networking opportunities for young trainees like me. My advice for young laboratorians is to become members of a larger society, but to then look for smaller, more focused groups within that to get involved. The SYCL, as well as the individual AACC Sections, and other interest groups within the AACC allow new members to interact with other trainees and laboratorians with similar interests to themselves. These opportunities will open the door for many others.
  3. What area(s) do you specialize in and what initiated your interest in this (these) area(s)?
    My area of interest is Molecular Diagnostics. This was initiated by my PhD work, where I studied the biochemical and genetic basis of a rare bleeding disorder. During this time, I became familiar with a vast array of genetic techniques, and contributed to the development of a diagnostic genetic test, which can correctly identify 100% of affected individuals.

    During my post-doctoral training in Clinical Chemistry, I was further drawn to topics that were related to the genetics of disease (biochemical genetics, pharmacogenetics, personalized therapies, etc.). Now, having finished my post-doctoral training, I am continuing specialized training in a molecular diagnostics lab and plan to also become certified by the ABCC in this area of Clinical Chemistry.
  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
    My PhD work really paved the way for my future career as a laboratorian, as it led to the discovery of the genetic locus of a rare disease, the subsequent mutation, and the development of a genetic diagnostic test. Now, individuals born into the affected family can be tested immediately after birth to determine if they harbor the affective mutation, and be managed properly before any major bleeding event can occur. I am most proud of this achievement, and am thankful for the many opportunities I was given to present my work to my peers. Having garnered much national and international interest, my findings gave me the confidence that I needed to propel myself into related areas of research and clinical work, which I continue to pursue today.
  5. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
    As I am still in the early phase of my career, at this point the most rewarding moment has been being awarded the George Grannis Award by the AACC in 2011. There is always a strong competition for this particular award, and I was honored to have been selected to receive it for my research and scientific publications so early in my career. During my PhD, I was also awarded a Young Investigator Award by the International Society of Thrombosis and Haemostasis, and my doctorate was also nominated by McMaster University for an Outstanding Thesis Award by the international Council of Graduate Schools.

    As far as challenges go, the biggest difficulty has been all the years of training that I have undergone in order to get where I am today. Succeeding in the fields of medicine and scientific research has become so competitive, that it often feels like I might stay a ‘trainee for life’. In order to overcome this feeling, I try to keep my work relevant and exciting, by pursuing many different interests and working with many different people. I feel that the more I can make myself “unique” from others in my field, the more opportunities will come my way in the future, which is the reason why I have persisted in studying so many different areas for so many years. I strongly encourage all trainees and young laboratorians to take advantage of the opportunities that are available for expanding their skill set, and applying for scholarships and awards whenever they can, as these are the early career steps that we always remember and are most proud of.
  6. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
    Having gotten married recently, I have been challenged with balancing my new home life with work. This can take some time to adjust to, and is not always an easy transition. I balance my work and life by keeping allotted times for each and trying not to overlap them too much. When I am at work, I work; when I am enjoying time with my family or go on vacation, I try not to let my worries about work get in the way. There is always going to be something that needs to be done, but keeping the right priorities at the right times is the best way to stay stress-free and relaxed when you need to be. Having a good support system, both at work and at home, is also essential for those times when unforeseen circumstances must take precedence over the routine tasks in our lives.
  7. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
    One of the reasons I’m so excited about the field of molecular diagnostics is that I feel it has gained a lot of momentum in the last decade. The topic of personalized medicine interests me immensely, and it seems that genetic testing is now going hand-in-hand with biochemical testing for many disease states. Understanding why individual body systems behave differently towards certain disease states and therapeutic treatments will become the most important way for us to tackle the challenges of disease management in the future. I’ve been involved in a “Personalized Medicine” workshop for the past 3 years at the AACC conference and have been impressed with the show of interest in this area by my fellow Clinical Chemistry peers.
  8. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
    The amount of new information that young scientists will have to stay up to date with is immense, and will prove challenging for many new laboratorians in the future. However, I believe that hospitals and labs are aware of this shifting paradigm, and are thus hiring staff with unique specialty areas to complement each other at work. Looking at many current job posting for clinical laboratorians, I’ve noticed that they often specify unique areas of specialization that may be desirable (eg. Mass Spectrometry, Genetics, Toxicology). Finding ones own comfortable niche within the huge umbrella of lab medicine, while still maintaining up-to-date knowledge in the core routine areas, is the best way to face this challenge.
  9. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
    Setting several achievable, short-term goals is the best way to gain the confidence a young scientist needs in order to pursue bigger endeavors. I personally enjoy writing scientific papers, perspectives, and reviews on areas that I am interested in in my field. I look for a good mentor, develop a plan, and work away at it until I feel I have completed my task. The reward of seeing my published work gives me the drive I need to then start on something new. In order to get your ‘name out there’ in our field, I would also recommend signing up to contribute to a workshop, lead a roundtable discussion, or give regular presentations at scientific conferences. Once young scientists start networking, they feel part of the bigger family of laboratorians and this gives them the confidence they need to pursue bigger goals, often without the need for a supporting mentor.
  10. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
    There were several areas that I had difficulties with during my training, with respect to some of the material that I was expected to know. This sometimes brought me stress and frustration because I felt like I had to understand everything and enjoy all the topics with the same level of enthusiasm. I learned that this is not the case- everyone has their own unique interests, skills and talents and we all learn from each other in different ways. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable in certain areas, and asking for help from those that are more knowledgeable will make you more successful at what you do, and it will make you more approachable to your peers. Soon you may find that others are coming to you for help and advice. The beauty of the field in which we are working is that it spans so many clinical areas, disorders, and skill sets, that individuals with unique knowledge in each area can work together to provide the best services and clinical care possible.
  11. What is the riskiest thing you've ever done?
    When I met my husband, who is an avid skier, I decided that I wanted to become really good at his favorite sport. I’ve always been a big sports fan, but coming from a Mediterranean family, I was never much exposed to skiing, and always found it looked quite dangerous when watching it on TV (I do love to watch all sports). But nonetheless, I gave it a try, and on our first ski trip ever, we went Lake Placid (the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics!). I started off on ‘bunny’ and ‘Green’ hills, but after only a few days, I found myself attempting more and more difficult runs. One day, I somehow took a wrong turn and ended up on ‘Black Diamond’ run that was full of steep slopes and icy moguls. This really had me scared! I’ve never been much of a risk taker in my life, particularly for situations that could put my life in danger. Skiing is a sport that relies on a lot of muscle control, navigation, and strength, which is something I hadn’t fully developed yet in this setting. So I just sat myself down on one of the moguls and started panicking. My family urged me on that I could do it if I just went really slow…it took many minutes of sitting with my heart pounding and my whole body sweating until I finally got myself up and slowly made it down the hill. That was my last run of the day. But it wasn’t my last skiing experience. Since that time, I’ve worked up my skill level to ‘intermediate’, and now I absolutely love to ski.

    This experience taught me that sometimes, taking a chance on something new and unfamiliar might actually unveil skills you never thought you had and take you on a lifelong adventure that you never imagined you might go on. I use this same principle when I’m planning new things for my career.
  12. What motivates you?
    I’ve always been motivated by the idea that as a young investigator, I can make a difference in the future of patient care. With changing technologies and paradigms in the field of laboratory medicine, I know that I am at the cutting edge of new knowledge and I am surrounded by the resources I need to better myself. Surrounding myself with strong and successful mentors that were once themselves in the position that I am now also gives me the belief in myself to continue pursuing knowledge in the area that I am most interested in. Seeing where my mentors have gotten after many years of dedication and hard work keeps me believing that I will get there one day too, and mentor other young trainees.
  13. Who are your role models or mentors?
    My biggest role models have always been my parents. They both completed PhDs in Clinical Chemistry and pursued careers in this field. Watching them succeed over the years has given me the drive I need to continue on this same path. At the same time, they raised a very happy and close-knit family and managed to keep the values of a good family life in clear view. Knowing that such a healthy work-life balance can be achieved successfully reassures me that I have set a good path for myself. Whenever I feel nervous or intimidated by a new situation I always turn to my parents for mentorship and advice and this always gets me through difficult times. I hope that one day I can be the same type of role model to my own children.
  14. Do you think the field of clinical chemistry will change in your career, and if so, how do you think it will change?
    One of the most exciting aspects of this field is that it is always changing. In fact, it has already changed by leaps and bounds over the last 5-10 years, that I have no doubt that these changes will continue at an unbelievable pace. As I mentioned, molecular diagnostic tests will probably become part of routine testing, and tests related to personalized medicine will become more and more common. As more genetic bases of predispositions to disease and responses to treatment are discovered and understood, I have no doubt that training of future Clinical Chemists will need to be expanded to cover these areas.
  15. How do you explain clinical chemistry to your friends/family that are not in the medical field?
    I always start off by reminding them that all of us at one time had blood drawn for a blood test. Then I give a few examples of common tests that we’ve all had: glucose, iron, cholesterol, thyroid hormone, and explain to them that all of these tests are done in the clinical chemistry laboratory. The clinical chemist’s job is to make sure that these tests are done properly and precisely so that a patient gets a result that accurately reflects their state of health. Doctors then use these results to determine the best course of treatment for an individual. Thus, the clinical chemistry laboratory is an integral part of a hospital and plays a central role in patient management.
  16. What is your favorite part of the last SYCL360 episode?
    The last SYCL360 podcast contained a section outlining some of the AACC Specialized Scientific Divisions, and focused on one in particular, the Molecular Pathology division. This was very interesting for me, as I recently decided to join this division myself. The podcast highlighted some of the educational initiatives and networking opportunities for members, and listed some of the goals of the division for the future. One goal in particular is the development of a certificate program for advanced molecular pharmacogenetics, which is an area of great interest to me, and is something I would consider pursuing. I look forward to hearing about some of the other special divisions in future episodes.
Page Access: