Research Safety Blog

From There to Here!

As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, for the rest of October we are running a collection of blog posts featuring some of the great women that work across Digital Science and our portfolio companies.

Photo credit: David CostaMelanie Hamblen has spent her whole life interested in Biology. By the age of 16 she had over 14 Peterson guides to help her identify all the flora and fauna all around her. She lives with her husband and son, two dogs, chickens and bee hives between Boston Massachusetts and Providence Rhode Island.

I often think about a conversation I overheard on a commuter bus sometime during the first week I started work at Boston Children’s Hospital as a Lab Manager. There were two young women discussing what they do in their respective research labs; of course my ears perked up when I heard them mention research.

First Woman: “I’m working with a post doc. I’m learning a lot – it’s pretty cool. What are you doing?”

Second woman: “That sounds good. I’m working with a grad student and helping out the Lab Manager.”

First woman: “Lab Manager, oh man, I feel really bad for our Lab Manager – that’s got to be the worst job in the world.”

Second woman: “Yeah, right. Who would ever want to do that?”

All I could think of was “what had I gotten myself into?” That thought echoed in my head for the next three long months.

I had come from a Drosophila lab that studied behavior. I worked on projects involving circadian rhythms and the Period gene. (Recently the work has been receiving awards: the Horwitz prize and the Shaw Prize.)

I had been there for 12 ½ years. In that time I had become one of the experts in behavioral analysis and helped train new graduate students and post docs who came to the lab. I took care of many issues that a Lab Manager would take care of, but I didn’t carry that title. When the behavior side of my work became too easy for me I jumped in to the molecular side of the study to learn something new.

I made a leap from the fly lab to a large HHMI lab at Boston Children’s Hospital where our main focus was studying the genes involved in hematopoiesis (research into the genetics behind blood diseases have recently received the Kovalenko award and the Allen award) and cancers of the blood. What a difference! A complete change of study – flies don’t have blood! What had I gotten myself into?

I spent the next 17 years as a Lab Manager in this lab. So it all worked out O.K. Eventually that “What had I gotten myself into? “ became “I can do this” and finally “what else can I do?” I found the role of lab manager fit me well. It is a fantastic career for a person who enjoys making sure people have what they need to get the job done, who can put the lab’s goals ahead of their own, and who can share in the joy of others in the lab achieving their goals. When my lab people got published and moved on to the next step in their careers, I felt as if I had succeeded along with them.

When I got to the “what else can I do” stage I used my growing passion for keeping my people safe and developed a relationship with the Environmental Health and Safety and Research Operations Departments. We worked on creating safety policies and personal protective equipment educational handouts for common procedures run in the labs. I also worked with HHMI on many special projects focusing on making sure people had the information they needed to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. I also helped build a network of Lab Managers where we could share information and help each other deal with difficult issues.

My latest leap has been to BioRAFT, a company with investment from Digital Science as a Client Communications Lead. Another jump into something totally different; I must be crazy! I am now working at a software company that helps institutions organize safety training and compliance data. I have only been here for a few months and I am once again in the “what did I do?” stage. I can see where my communication skills and my desire to make sure people have the information they need to get their jobs done safely will help the company succeed. I am hoping to get to the “I can do this and excel at it!” stage soon! And while I’m at it I will build a top notch Post-Implementation Customer Management program, helping our customers keep their people safe. Because when they reach their goals I will too.

I worry that the uncertainty of the next step and anxiety of the “what did I do?” stages keeps people from leaping into new and exciting roles and opportunities to learn. I have done it and it is painful, but it goes away. The gain is well worth the pain.

What could be next? This might sound like a fantasy but perhaps designing a certificate program for new Lab Managers to help them succeed, now that would be fantastic!

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. – Lao Tzu

Digital Science has been celebrating women in science as part of its celebration of Ada Lovelace Day. Recently, they posted an article from our own Diliny Colosquet! The article is reproduced here, with permission from Digital Science..

Diliny1Diliny Corlosquet is the Senior Product Manager ofBioRAFT, the provider of integrated laboratory safety and research management software solutions. She holds two degrees in Chemical Engineering, BASc, MASc, and a Masters of Science specializing in regenerative medicine.  She has also worked as a Front-End Drupal Web Developer and contributed to the Drupal community as a technical editor on the widely resourced Definitive Guide to Drupal 7 and as one of the organizers for the annual Design for Drupal conference.  Diliny is also a soon to be mother of two and lives in the Greater Boston Area with her geek husband and labrador retriever.

My career path did not take me on a traditional route. I started studying chemical engineering and graduated from a 5-year co-op program at the University of Waterloo (UW) in Canada. Traditionally, two very different paths awaited me at graduation – pursuing a higher education or entering industry. It is rare for a recent graduate to pursue both.

I always had an interest in Biochemical Engineering—specifically a desire to work with stem cells or at the least, cell culture. While my classmates were accepting full-time paid employment opportunities, I jumped at the chance to work as a summer student for Aventis Pasteur in Toronto learning how to produce antibodies from Hybridomas at a small to medium scale. This opportunity led me to an industry-led research master’s program in collaboration between Aventis and UW optimizing the antibody production from Hybridomas in bioreactors. Before completing the program, Aventis hired me as an Associate Scientist and I was thrown into the deep end learning how to manage projects, project teams, technology transfer, and participated in setting up a new clean room for use in producing phase I clinical trial material.

If you come to a fork in the road, take it. – Yogi Berra

Although I did not lack for employment opportunities as an engineer, I felt I was not yet done with my educational path. Following exposure to the vaccine industry, it became quite obvious that climbing the career ladder required either a PhD or an MBA. Being single, I had the flexibility to travel but lacked the experience that would benefit from an MBA. I decided to apply for a PhD in science.

I kept my options for study open, limited only by the subject matter. I wanted to travel and experience new sites and sounds. My two primary choices were Vancouver, British Columbia, and Ireland. A two-week backpacking trip around Ireland was all I needed to fall in love with the Emerald Isle. I didn’t just limit myself to these two locations but also inquired in to programs in Canada, Australia, and England.

My checklist for selecting a PhD program:

  • Select a topic of research that you love or foresee yourself growing to love
  • Identify a supervisor:
    1. that you feel you can connect with and be candid, honest, have a good relationship with,
    2. who has good connections to aid you in the future,
    3. who is supportive of their graduate students.
  • Ask lots of questions to determine your potential supervisor’s style and expectations
  • Find out whom they have supervised in the past and go in with the knowledge of whether past graduates have benefitted well or poorly from the experience
  • Verify the stability of the funds available for your program
  • Know whom your on-site resources will be outside of your supervisor and try to identify if there are any politics associated with your research group
  • Expect the unexpected

I was in for a surprise on contacting several researchers regarding a PhD. Academics often collaborate with industry on shared research and for funding. However, the perception was that as I had conducted my research in an industrial setting, that I had somehow been exposed to an ‘idyllic’ environment with an abundance of material and staff resources.

This was far from the truth. At every stage at Aventis I had to justify budget, scope of project, and justify any ‘help’. I was limited to the equipment that was available to my project. I was left alone to stumble through establishing experiments and thesis matter in the same manner as any other undergraduate student. The main difference from academia was that a proportion of my daily work was in delivering a product through the pipeline – this meant a driving need to keep my research based in optimizing production and less room for deviation down more theoretic paths.

Where there is a will, there is a way. – Proverb

After many months of searching, and with the help of a colleague at Aventis, I changed course and accepted a 1-year position as a Research Assistant at the National Diagnostics Center, National University of Ireland in Galway (NUIG). Following this year immersed in academia I finally got my chance. I started a PhD program researching Adipose derived stem cells at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI), NUIG.

However, not everyone is cut out for the PhD path. Four years had passed since I had started down this path and my life had changed considerably. My relationship with my supervisor was good; however, my relationship with the topic of my research, my relationship with my colleagues, and my goals in life had taken quite a beating.

I was now married and wanting to start a family and settle down. I also foresaw the need for a few more years to complete my studies. Then, I would expect to pursue at least one post-doctoral position. The path I was on had become too steep for me to conquer by will power alone. After much thought, I decided that I would leave the academic life with a second master’s degree. In hindsight, this is not a decision I regret.

How to decide when it’s time to “Fail:”

  • Is this still the path you want to be on?
  • Weigh the pros and cons of opportunities available to you should you walk away from a difficult situation
  • Do you have the flexibility to move tangentially?
  • Can you return to your previous career path?
  • Can you leave amicably so as not to burn any bridges?
  • What are the personal reasons for doing this and how strongly do those affect you?

My husband and I moved to Boston and I spent a couple of years working for the Harvard Medical School as a senior Research Technician via the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The downturn in the economy and my time spent in academia had not given me an edge in returning to industry.

Always be yourself. Unless you can be a Unicorn. Then always be a Unicorn. – Unknown

While waiting for my thesis to be approved, I had a lot of free time on my hands. Through my husband, I was exposed to the Drupal community and its development framework. I began freelancing as a front-end web developer for numerous community based charities. I continued as I hunted for ‘real’ positions in Boston. Through this hobby, I was further exposed to the local developer community and I made many friends and acquaintances through attending local developer camps and conferences.

It was at one such local Drupal meetup that I first encountered my future boss, Ben Benone from BioRAFT. After the initial confusion as to whether I was a researcher or whether I was a web developer, I was asked to cobble two very different resumes together. I had morphed into what is often referred to as a ‘unicorn’ – A very rare talented person with several rare skills who’s almost mythically hard to find (Reference: http://www.quora.com/Is-there-an-online-dictionary-for-tech-startup-jargon). I was soon on my way to becoming BioRAFT’s Product Manager.

Working with developers is no different than working with post docs: individuals who are dedicated to their craft and looking to expand their horizons with challenges. The work of product manager, like that of a lab manager, requires a heavy dose of communication, organization, and the ability to think and identify the scope of a project at lightning speed. Knowing your product is vital but also knowing the limitations of your developers and the framework in which they develop contribute equally.

My path forked many times and has led me full-circle to a position that straddles both worlds of academia and industry. Having seen firsthand the issues that both academia and industry have had with regards to managing staff, training, and keeping track of projects, my first reaction to seeing the BioRAFT platform was “Where have you been all my life?” The transparency of what research is being done, where, and by whom, that BioRAFT tracks is the missing link in both industries. Furthermore, my academic and industrial experience is paramount to understanding the user personas of our clients and the majority of our users.

My final advice to anyone who is just starting their career is to do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door; take risks; work hard; don’t be afraid of change when your path is leading you astray. Most of all – follow your heart as often as you follow your mind and be sure that you love what you do.

ABSA 2014 San Diego!

ABSA Annual conference is right around the corner.  Will we see you there? Please come visit booth #210 and ask to see a demo of BioRAFT's updates since last year.  http://absaconference.org/