The Department of Pathology at the University of Michigan is home to a robust research enterprise that is ranked #5 in the nation in terms of the overall number of NIH grants and the number of R01 grants awarded. The Experimental Pathology Division occupies approximately 62,000 sq ft of research space and is supported by nearly $32 million in grant funding. Each lab is led by a Primary Investigator (PI), who is a faculty member in the Department and who guides the members of the lab in their research endeavors. Most of these PIs work closely with another valuable member of the lab – their laboratory manager. Yet, when one looks at the job postings for research positions, the term “laboratory manager” is not found. So, who are these people and what do they do?
To learn more, we chatted with several lab managers in the Department of Pathology including:
Paula Arrowsmith, BS, MT, HT, from the Evan Farkash Lab. The Farkash lab focuses on kidney transplantation and rejection. Paula began her career in the military, where she completed her undergraduate education and was certified as a histology technician and medical technician. She has worked in clinical and research labs for 36 years and started in the Farkash lab in February 2022. Paula is a Research Laboratory Technician Senior.
Abdulsalam Soofi, PhD, from the Gregory Dressler Lab. The Dressler lab focuses on developmental biology and disease pathways. Abdul has worked at the University of Michigan for 22 years, beginning as a nephrology research associate. When his PI moved to a new institution in 2009, he transferred to the Dressler lab. In 2017, he decided to get his PhD, which would allow him to advance in his career. Since he couldn’t afford to stop working for his education in Michigan, he obtained his degree from the University of Warwick, UK. He is now a Research Investigator in Pathology and is under consideration for promotion to Research Assistant Professor in 2023.
Vicky Garcia Hernandez, MS, PhD, from the Charles Parkos-Asma Nusrat Labs. The Parkos-Nusrat labs focus on inflammatory bowel disease and the biology of the intestinal mucosa during health and disease. Vicky joined the University of Michigan in 2015 and became the Parkos-Nusrat Lab manager in 2018. Vicky is a Research Lab Specialist Senior.
Maranne Green, BS, MT, from the Eric Fearon and Kathleen Cho Labs. The Fearon lab studies colon cancer and the Cho lab studies ovarian cancer. Maranne has been with the University since 1985 in clinical and research labs, and with the Fearon and Cho labs for the past 10-12 years. She has a bachelor’s degree and is certified in Medical Technology. She is a is a Research Lab Specialist Senior.
Michele Cusato, MS, from the Analisa DiFeo Lab. The DiFeo lab studies ovarian cancer. Michele started as a high school teacher for seven years prior to transitioning to the lab almost 30 years ago. She spent time in research labs at UM, Wayne State University, and Karmanos Cancer Institute, before returning to UM and the DiFeo lab in 2018 as a is a Research Lab Specialist Senior.
In spite of the variety of research foci of the labs being supported, the lab managers have many roles in common. One of these duties is training other lab members, especially the rotating students. Undergraduate, graduate, and sometimes high school students, rotate through labs frequently. In addition, postdoctoral fellows rotate through labs every few years. Lab managers ensure each of these are onboarded appropriately and trained on lab protocols and procedures to be sure they comply with all mandatory requirements. Teaching new lab members how to operate equipment, conduct experimental procedures, find supplies they need, and locate shared services are routine parts of the lab manager’s job.
Lab managers are also responsible for ordering supplies, which can include live animals and patented materials from other researchers. “I do all the ordering and resolve any issues we may have. I complete the material transfer agreements, which can be rather complicated,” said Michele. “We have a large mouse colony,” added Maranne. “I need to monitor that and take care of anything that has to do with maintaining the colony.” “Ordering supplies needed for the lab has to be done by someone that the PI trusts,” described Abdul. “The grant money needs to be managed the correct way to avoid overspending or buying things that are not necessary.” There is a great deal of administrative work associated with managing a lab.
The administrative work also means preparing for inspections. Labs are regularly inspected to ensure regulatory compliance. The lab managers are responsible for ensuring appropriate documentation is in place, safety protocols are being followed, and that the lab is functioning properly and meeting all of the requirements. “It is important to have strong organizational skills. You must document everything you do,” Paula explained. “Every step you do must be documented because if in the end, the experiment works, you need to be able to duplicate it.” “In the lab, there are rules that must be followed," added Abdul. "You have to explain to new people in the lab how important it is that they stick to them. If they don’t pay attention to the rules, that can become an issue for you as a manager when you have to deal with the OSHA representative."
In addition, the lab managers conduct experiments in the labs. In the Farkash lab, Paula’s research is centered on how the nerves, arteries, veins, muscles, and skin attach and survive, or are rejected. “My primary research is mostly doing histology, immunohistochemistry, and immunofluorescence. The doctors assign projects to lab members, who then they come to me for help in the lab and I help guide them.” Vicky is in a larger lab with 18-20 people from 10 different countries. “I master some of the techniques in the lab as best I can, but you can never know everything,” she noted. “We do research using state-of-the-art in vivo and in vitro models of intestinal inflammation. I do a lot of multi-tasking and am the interface between the students, postdocs, faculty, and PIs. You can never be bored here!” They also make sure others in the lab have what they need to conduct their experiments. “It may be just a matter of digging something out of the freezer, growing it, and making sure it is viable,” said Michele. “Or it may be that you are running preventive maintenance on the equipment or cleaning things up, so the lab is ready for the day’s work.”
One of the most important responsibilities, however, is managing the people in the lab. With lab members from 10 different countries, navigating cultural differences and communication is a major part of Vicky’s role. This is not uncommon as multi-cultural teams are the norm in most laboratories. Lab managers help the staff deal with communication problems and misunderstandings that can easily arise, with a goal toward a family environment. Everyone in the lab has projects they need to complete and cultural differences can impact how people work together. “When you have different people working in the lab, everyone thinks their project is the most important. You need to collaborate and be the go-between with people and explain how everyone’s project is important and that we need to work together as a team,” said Abdul. It is important to work in a lab where you, the PI, and other lab members are a good personality fit as you will work closely together every day.
Lab managers derive great satisfaction when experiments succeed, manuscripts are published, or grants are awarded, regardless of which lab members were involved. The best days for Paula are when she can “see light bulbs turn on” as she simplifies complex ideas to members of the lab. “The people I am working with are more educated than I am, but I’m able to simplify concepts so they can understand it, because I have the knowledge that they need to learn. For me, the most rewarding thing is working with the people and being able to further their education.”
Schedule flexibility is another area that is attractive to the lab managers. “I was in the clinical pathology lab and moved to research. I was able to raise my kids and have the flexibility to pick them up from school, if needed, then come back,” explained Maranne. “This wasn’t possible in the clinical labs.” The ability to come in to work during quieter hours of evenings, weekends, or early mornings is also a plus when the job at hand requires uninterrupted focus.
Research can also be a challenging field in many ways. First, research projects often do not go as planned, so resilience is needed. Experiments can also take a long time to get results. For lab managers who come from clinical labs, this is a major adjustment. In clinical labs, the tests are performed, and every day is a new day. In research, a year’s worth of work may be handed to a person one day and they must manage that workload over the year. Keeping oneself and other lab members on task and on track can be difficult. In addition, being a grant-funded position, salaries are dependent upon funds available from grants and tend to be lower than in “hard money” positions (those budgeted from operating funds of the institution). This is an area some feel needs more attention. In addition, without a PhD, there really is not a research career track beyond laboratory manager, so growth options are limited. Finally, you are often working with individuals who have in-depth knowledge in their field of research, and it can be challenging to learn the scientific skills and background necessary to succeed.
Ultimately, our laboratory managers enjoy their jobs working in the labs. They find the environment to be flexible, friendly, and more like a family than a job. They enjoy training, organizing, and making new discoveries. They have fun going out to dinner, engaging in recreational activities, and just hanging out with their lab colleagues. It is a demanding field, but from the perspectives of these lab managers, it is one that is well worth it!