American Association for Clinical Chemistry
Better health through laboratory medicine
September 2012 Mentor of the Month: Dave Koch
Biography & Career
  1. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
  2. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
  3. What area(s) do you specialize in and what initiated your interest in this (these) area(s)?
  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
  5. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
  6. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
  7. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
  8. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
  9. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
  10. What is strangest occurrence you’ve encountered in the lab?
  11. How do you resolve conflicts in the laboratory?
  12. Who are your role models or mentors?
  13. With your background in analytical chemistry how did you discover clinical chemistry as a career path?
  14. I note that you’ve made some big changes in location from Madison Wisconsin, to West Point, Pennsylvania and now to Emory University in Atlanta in the course of your career. How did you decide on when the time was right to make the change in your career?
  15. While you are part of the larger Emory University system what are the challenges you face as the only Clinical Chemist at Grady Memorial Hospital?
  16. While you are part of the larger Emory University system what are the challenges you face as the only Clinical Chemist at Grady Memorial Hospital?
  17. Do you have any advice for the SYCL membership on developing collaborations with Clinical Colleagues and other Clinical Laboratorians?
  18. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
Biography & Career
  1. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
    I am a member of AACC, NACB, ACS and AAAS but my active professional involvement is with AACC and NACB.
  2. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
    I joined AACC and ACLPS during my clinical chemistry fellowship and have found them both to be essential to whatever success I have experienced. I have benefited from professional interaction, have gained wonderful personal relationships through these groups, and learned a great deal from the educational offerings provided. I became a fellow of NACB about 10 years into my career, and have volunteered in several capacities with the CLSI. For clinical chemists, the obvious organization to get started in is AACC, which provides perhaps the easiest entry through the local section. Find out when and where your group is meeting. Even if the topic isn’t one you are enamored with and/or it is a bit of a trip, make the effort so you can start meeting fellow clinical chemistry professionals in your region. Developing connections, sharing ideas, and benefiting from sage advice will help you go back to your place of employment a more effective contributor.
  3. What area(s) do you specialize in and what initiated your interest in this (these) area(s)?
    Instrumentation, particularly electrochemistry, has perhaps been the main area, which stems from my graduate school days and my experience at Wash U during my fellowship. And then I focused on the evaluation of clinical laboratory methods. I realized the importance of this topic early on, but learned more about it from my colleagues at my first job, Carl Garber, Jim Westgard, and Neill Carey, who took me under their wing and included me in various academic opportunities.
  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
    Undoubtedly education – of fellows, residents, med tech students, medical students, and AACC Annual Meeting attendees – has been my most significant contribution. Especially, as mentioned, the topic of method evaluation. Each time I give talks, courses, and seminars on this subject is rewarding because the participants have an eagerness to learn. And we all have the likelihood of doing evaluations numerous times during our career.
  5. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
    I am reminded of twice during my career when reward & challenge have enigmatically coincided: I was blessed one year to earn the major award from the Chicago Section, at the very time when work life was deteriorating at my place of employment. (More on the latter in Q 14.) The second rewarding time has been serving the membership through being elected to the Board of Directors of AACC. That has been a privilege and a worthwhile and enjoyable experience, but I would be lying if I didn’t also say that the very recent situation regarding replacing our new Executive VP was a stern challenge.
  6. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
    Be disciplined and productive at work, but equally disciplined about leaving work and having a life outside of work. Work is never done, and there is never enough time – certainly to be a perfectionist, so forget that notion. Find some hobbies and carve out time for them. I try to get regular exercise, play golf not nearly enough, and read non-scientific literature at least a little bit daily. When considering a job, find an employer who seems to value a balance. To me, this means understanding that employees are better and more focused at work when they can be reasonably certain of regularly recharging, and more supported at home when attendance at important family events comes ahead of the pressures at work. I’ll never forget the coaching from Chris Frings, a clinical chemist who passed away a few years ago, on this subject of time management and watching for ways to limit your stress.
  7. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
    There will continue to be exciting developments in technology, more applications of POCT to consider, increased automation of QC tools, and improved laboratory techniques related to an individual’s genome which will lead to an increasing role for laboratorians in personalized medicine.
  8. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
    Unfortunately, there will always be a range of challenges in our profession. When you think about it, this reality is a good thing since people are needed to handle the variety of responsibilities. In fact, 10-15 years ago there was significant angst that the number of clinical chemist positions was going to dwindle down to a very small number. While we have averted that threat and have encouraging numbers of young scientists joining the profession, I am concerned about at least two things:
    -the high expectations and time demands of many current jobs are turning out to be so daunting for these newer clinical chemists that they won’t stay in the profession
    -the financial squeeze on hospitals means there are paltry resources for projects, publications, and development of the laboratory staff.
  9. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
    Related to the last half of my answer to Q 8, there is an increasing need to articulate our value to clinicians, hospital administrators, and the decision-makers in government. Get out of your office/lab and interact with each group, including contacting local and national political leaders.
  10. What is strangest occurrence you’ve encountered in the lab?
    On several occasions, I’ve been called by laboratory staff to deal with oddly colored body fluids, colors like dark blue, fluorescent green. Discussion with the clinical teams usually uncovers some peculiar thing the patients have gotten into, or are processing through the excretory system in unique ways.
  11. How do you resolve conflicts in the laboratory?
    I have been fortunate in my career to work with excellent supervisory staff whose experience has helped to avoid major conflicts. But when they occur, listen first, to both points of view, before making your pronouncements and decisions.
  12. Who are your role models or mentors?
    During my postdoctoral fellowship, I especially learned a great deal from Jack Ladenson and Jay McDonald. And then, as a young clinical chemist at the University of Wisconsin, Carl Garber, Merle Evenson, Ian Carlson, and Jim Westgard were excellent role models. I’ve gained encouragement from a lot of people over the years, but I’ll particularly remember here people like Al and Helen Free, Jack Levine, Frank Wians, and Ron Laessig.
  13. With your background in analytical chemistry how did you discover clinical chemistry as a career path?
    While finishing up my Ph.D. at Purdue, I counseled with my advisor, Pete Kissinger, and another faculty member, Harry Pardue. Providentially, Dr. Pardue had just heard from one of his contacts who was then a clinical chemist at Washington University, that they were looking for postdoctoral fellowship candidates. I went for the interview in St. Louis, and the rest, they say, is history.
  14. I note that you’ve made some big changes in location from Madison Wisconsin, to West Point, Pennsylvania and now to Emory University in Atlanta in the course of your career. How did you decide on when the time was right to make the change in your career?
    My time at the University of Wisconsin was wonderful in so many respects. It was great being a clinical chemist there in the 80’s and most of the 90’s. But, as I refer to in Q 5, the situation deteriorated because of leadership changes in the Department. I’ll mention just one aspect: I tried to start a postdoctoral fellowship, funding the first two fellows with my own resources. The Department Chair showed no appreciation or interest. I hesitated leaving because I knew I would consign one of my best friends in the profession, Don Wiebe, as the only fulltime clinical chemist left. But there were a few other issues that caused my wife and me to consider moving the family, and our faith was rewarded by a satisfying move to Merck and the Philadelphia area. Although stimulating to be in the corporate world and experience animal clinical pathology, Merck had some difficulties which shortened my time there. I was looking and Emory was looking, so I changed again, back to human clinical chemistry and the academic world. While I am an advocate of (and revere) commitment and longevity in the workplace, I also now understand better that such longevity is unfortunately not respected or compensated as much as advancing by changing jobs a few times.
  15. While you are part of the larger Emory University system what are the challenges you face as the only Clinical Chemist at Grady Memorial Hospital?
    I do benefit from Grady Hospital being part of the Emory family, because there are four of us clinical chemists. I can share ideas, problems, and solutions with my colleagues Jim Ritchie, Corinne Fantz, and Ross Molinaro. But I am the only one stationed at Grady, meaning I deal with the wide variety of our field all the time and cannot really focus on any one specialty. The issue of each clinician who calls is the most important to them, and I have to transition quickly. And I keep Tietz Textbook close at hand!
  16. In addition to serving as Director of Clinical Chemistry and Toxicology you also serve as Director of Point-of-Care testing. With the additional expense of Point-of-Care testing as compared to testing performed in the main laboratory how do you see Point-of-Care testing changing in the next 5 – 10 years?
    Technical developments will provide even more POC choices, improving the quality and reducing the cost somewhat, but POCT will never be as inexpensive as central laboratory testing. So laboratory medicine professionals who can articulate the options to health care providers and help implement the best solutions for their institutions will be increasingly valued.
  17. Do you have any advice for the SYCL membership on developing collaborations with Clinical Colleagues and other Clinical Laboratorians?
    I reflected on this aspect of our field in Q 9, and especially developing relationships with our clinical colleagues is essential to our future. Be confident about the importance of the clinical laboratory in patient care and your role in assuring the highest quality service from the laboratory, and then take advantage of as many opportunities as you can to interact with clinicians in each discipline that uses your laboratory testing service. Attend clinical conferences, accompany clinicians on their rounds, and get to know these providers. That way they get to know you and will contact you when they have questions about or issues with the clinical laboratory, rather than developing frustration about the laboratory and drawing the erroneous - but far too common - conclusion that the laboratory is comprised of callous automation. Also, you will then have colleagues with which to accomplish clinical collaborative studies.
  18. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
    In spite of the challenges we face, our profession provides a sense of purpose and a source of great joy. I am honored to be a "Mentor of the Month".