Interview with a Lab Manager: Micah Simmons, UAB School of Medicine
Brief intro: Micah Simmons is a lab manager in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. He works in the lab of Dr. James Meador-Woodruff, under whom he investigates the molecular mechanisms underlying schizophrenia.
When did you decide you wanted to become a lab manager, and why did you choose it as an occupation (particularly with regard to other potential careers in biomedical research)?
Becoming a lab manager was an opportunity to grow my career and use a different skill that requires communication and coordination, rather than only conducting experiments. Also, it was an opportunity to educate other students/techs about techniques and how to think about doing hypothesis-driven science as a whole.
What are your most and least favorite elements of working as a lab manager?
My favorite aspect of my job is being part of as team that collaborates on very difficult hypotheses in a human illness – schizophrenia – that has, as yet, not had many convincing answers; I love investigating what might be happening to these patients. At this job, I get to work with really smart people and learn something new every day as we perform cutting-edge research.
My least favorite is the lab maintenance part: having all the correct paper work for the audits and filling out new forms for new techniques.
What is the focus of your research currently?
My current focus is to develop experiments to model in vitro previous findings generated using postmortem human brain samples from patients with schizophrenia and comparison subjects. We are transfecting neuronal and glioblastoma cell lines with small hairpin RNA’s to knockdown farnesyl transferases to then measure a myriad of targets affected by the decreased target expression. This modeling system will give insight into mechanisms that may contribute to the pathophysiology of schizophrenia.
What was your academic pathway to where you are now?
I began going to Gadsden State community college in 1997. I was not much of a science person but became very interested in aquaculture and fishery science. I met people that had attended Auburn University for aquaculture and fishery science, so I transferred to Auburn.
At Auburn, I started looking for jobs and found one in the fishery genetic building where I became interested in genetics/proteomics. My mentors at Auburn, Drs. Zhanjiang (John) Liu and Huseyin Kucuktas, were instrumental in starting my career in biomedical research. I finished my bachelors (2001) and stayed in that lab to study the genetic effects of cultivating catfish in farm ponds and the impact on genetic health they may have on the indigenous catfish population in rivers around the farms.
Afterwards, I got my MS in 2004 in Dr. Zhanjiang (John) Liu’s (lab?) and went on to work for the USDA. Then, I worked for the UAB’s School of Public Health where I investigated Alzheimer’s Disease and schizophrenia. Later, I transferred to my current lab in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology.
How difficult is it to get a job as a lab manager?
Lab manager positions are limited by the number of PI’s (principal investigator, the head of the lab) that can get funding, from the NIH or elsewhere. Of course, more funding equates to more lab manager positions, so job availability depends on the current funding climate. That being said, maintaining a career as a lab manager requires the skill sets I mentioned above. Past that, it helps if you have really dedicated people working with you. Working for a great PI like Dr. James Meador-Woodruff has been crucial in my success as a lab manger. Without his mentorship, I would not be where I am today.
What are some key skills and qualities you think individuals who want to follow suit should have?
I think you need to be responsible, inclusive, strategic, patient, a good communicator, and a good listener. Most importantly, you need to know how to build trust amongst your colleagues.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
In science you have to accept change and get others to accept change as well. Performing experiments themselves and getting a result almost always will enact a change, so I would say the most challenging aspect is navigating the dynamic nature of this field. This change could present in a new technique and involve getting others to trust that the change will be beneficial in the long run.
How does a typical workday look?
I make rounds to ensure everyone in the lab has what they need to get their experiments done and listen to any issues they might have work or non-work related. Then I answer emails and place orders. For my own experiments, I may be in the cell culture room for 3-6hrs maintaining cell lines or starting experiments.
Then, I plan out whether I have to run a western blot or qPCR experiment and make sure protocols are in place. After the experiment, I perform data analyses and make a presentation for lab meeting. I may concurrently be helping with a manuscript or grant proposal. Furthermore, throughout the day I am conversing with students about their experiments: discussing a correct technique to use, interpreting data, or talking about the literature.
The days are diverse and depend on the experiment or if there is a situation going on in the lab I need to handle (e.g. equipment breaking down – can I fix it or do I need to find someone to fix it, dealing with intra or inter lab conflicts people may encounter, etc.)