February 2013 Mentor of the Month Interview: Dr. Akhavan-Tafti
Biography & Career
  1. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?

    I am involved in AACC and was the 2012 AACC Oak Ridge Conference Chairman. I'm currently the treasurer of the International Society for Bioluminescence and Chemiluminescence (ISBC). I'm a member of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS), Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP), American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). I've also been a member of the American Chemical Society (ACS) since my college days.

  2. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?

    Find an organization in an area that fascinates you. Attend the meetings to find like- minded people and then wade right in. So many of the established members are tied down by professional and personal obligations and will welcome any help younger members can provide to help pick up the load of running committees and meetings.

    Don't be intimidated by the members with big reputations. They started out just like you and have to put their pants on one leg at a time, too. Most will welcome enthusiastic young members when they see enthusiastic shared interest.

  3. What area(s) do you specialize in and what initiated your interest in this (these) area(s)?

    I specialize in chemiluminescence and its application to the fields of medical diagnostics and life science research. I had the privilege of working on surfactant chemistry under the supervision of Professor D. C. Berndt at Western Michigan University. Later on I had the privilege of working in the field of chemiluminescence under the supervision of Professor A. P. Schaap at Wayne State University. They made chemistry so much fun for me. It was the superior education that I received from these two amazing scientists which enabled me to make a significant contribution in both fields.

  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?

    My research has been focused on discovery and development of new technologies that are fundamental and broadly applicable to clinical testing and life science research. Chemiluminenscence detection technologies have become game-changers for automated immunodiagnostic platforms. The chemiluminescent technologies that I helped to develop have been used to perform over a billion tests annually. Most recently, SNAP, a novel nucleic acid isolation chemistry, and SPARCL, a no-wash immunoassay technology are two other inventions that offer significant advantages and great potential for development of new clinical diagnostic systems which will be used to improve patient care.

  5. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?

    Seeing our inventions being used to improve patient care is very rewarding.

  6. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?

    In my case, I enjoy the research work I have been doing. My recommendation is that you make sure you like your work, then work becomes play. Nevertheless, good time management is very important, too. You want to prioritize things in both work and family life. When there is a conflict between work and family, I always say to my colleagues that family comes first. However my work has been so enjoyable that at times I may not have listened to my own advice.

  7. What has been the most important innovation you've seen in the last 10 years in lab medicine?

    The advancements in the field of cancer diagnosis and therapies, and personalized medicine.

  8. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next 10 years?

    I believe we will see significantly more applications of mass spectrometry in clinical laboratories over the next decade. I also believe that the field of molecular diagnostics will contribute significantly in advancing patient care.

  9. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?

    Laboratory medicine continues to become heavily automated. This trend could be foreboding to young scientists. However, automation can be complementary to their efforts by taking mundane tasks off their plates. This will enable them to pursue new ideas and research.

  10. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?

    Set goals that make you happy. One way is to find an area with a need to be filled that intrigues you, even if it's outside of your area of expertise. Often knowing too much about a topic will inhibit you from trying things that a more "experienced" scientist would dismiss out of hand. Be open and try things anyway. It's remarkable how often things that people "know" to be true just aren't so. Look for anomalies. They're the loose ends that, with hard work and persistence, may allow you to open up a new and fascinating field of discovery.

  11. What kinds of opportunities are there in industry for young scientists?

    At no time in my career have I experienced more opportunities available for young scientists. As happy as I am with all that I have been able to achieve, there are so many opportunities available that I wish I could start over again. The clinical diagnostic industry is always looking for bright young scientists to keep them abreast of new advancements and technologies in order for them to stay competitive.

  12. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?

    Be open to changing directions. Some of my best inventions came via a very circuitous route ending in an entirely different product than what I set out to produce. While hard work is the first step toward any success, one has to be cognizant of serendipitous opportunities. One of my best allies in research is serendipity, and you need to be ready to open the door when opportunity knocks.

  13. Can you provide some insight into the patent process as it relates to the field of laboratory medicine?

    The patent process is dynamic and the standards for patentability are escalating rapidly. Obtaining patents in well mined fields is much more difficult. The key to successfully getting patents is to identify areas or problems which haven't been worked so heavily. Over my career I have been granted over eighty US and many more foreign patents. In general I've looked at areas in which people have said that certain things "can't be done" and then tried to find out how to do them. Then it's a good idea to explore and extend the fundamental idea to build up a good supporting and protecting portfolio of patents. To be an inventor you have to lead, and not to follow.

  14. What is your favorite book and why?

    I have never read a book that I didn't love.

  15. What do you look for in job candidates when hiring?

    I view research as a labor of love. While I look for a scientist who is inquisitive and creative like a member of a jazz band, simultaneously, I need them to be able to work with other team members harmoniously, as in a large orchestra. While these two needs appear to oppose each other, populating our research team with these kinds of bright yet disciplined scientists has allowed us to be very productive.

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