Interview with Dr. Gillim-Ross, Technical Director and Discipline Director of Infectious Disease Immunology for LabCorp in Denver, Colorado
Interviewed by Brandon Walling, Ph.D., NIAID Postdoctoral Fellow
What are you going to do after your postdoc or Ph.D. at NIH?
The “Career Pathways – Explore the Possibilities” series highlights different professions pursued by scientists like you. This interview focuses on a technical director and discipline director of infectious disease immunology for LabCorp in Denver, Colorado, someone who oversees a clinical laboratory and the infectious disease testing in immunology. She also speaks briefly about her experiences as the director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Laboratory.
Dr. Gillim-Ross was a postdoc at NIAID for two years, where she worked in the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases. Prior to this, she was an emerging infectious diseases fellow at the Wadsworth Center in New York. Previous to her current position, she worked as the laboratory supervisor, deputy director, and director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Read this interview with Dr. Gillim-Ross to learn more about her journey to her current position.
Can you tell us a little about your role as a discipline director and technical director at LabCorp?
As a technical director of LabCorp, I work in a regional laboratory, similar to many found across the country. The areas in our laboratory that I oversee include hematology, microbiology, infectious diseases, and chemistry—which is really the catch-all. In the Denver Regional Laboratory, I am responsible for the quality of all of the testing that we perform including monitoring testing, working directly with physicians and healthcare providers to support them in the interpretation, and answering any questions if they have concerns about the testing. All of our testing is human or clinical testing with a small amount of clinical trials. As technical director, I also oversee the operations of the laboratory. That includes the majority of the supply chain: starting with our data entry group, to our technical testing staff, to customer service—who are working on problems that occur with specimens that come in or that occur here. I work with partners throughout the state to find opportunities to participate in the clinical testing realm. I also take part in any acquisitions and the incorporation of other laboratories that are in our area into our laboratory. I look at what testing we offer in our area, whether it is cost effective, or if we should send it to a sister laboratory. We also partner with seven other regional labs in our division, so I work closely with those technical directors to respond to any physician concerns or questions.
The discipline director position is not just for the Denver laboratory but for LabCorp as a whole. My discipline is infectious disease immunology. I work with our corporate science and technology group to oversee infectious disease testing in immunology. We ask questions like, are we doing the right tests? Are there new methodologies we could use? I work with the company and outside groups to look for new opportunities for testing methodologies and changes in the targets we look at. I am also responsible for ensuring the company’s standard operating procedures are up-to-date. I ensure that they are in line with the current clinical guidelines. I look at the current guidelines for infectious disease testing to ensure that what we are offering meets those guidelines and ensure that we are not offering things that aren’t necessary for those guidelines. You see a lot of providers who want to just test everything.
What kinds of skills, technical or otherwise, do you think are important to have as a discipline director and technical director?
The skills I see are having a breadth of knowledge. I mentioned that I oversee hematology, but I have no background in hematology. I think [it is important to have] a broader background where you have at least been exposed to different fields, that you have had the opportunity to work at a higher level to understand the structure even if you may not know the actual testing. As a discipline director, it is my knowledge of infectious diseases, I have a broad knowledge from my various postdocs and fellowships. I also had partnerships both as a postdoc and a fellow with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Having technical expertise within infectious diseases—it being relatively broad—has been key for me. I have also found that molecular knowledge is important, but most people have that now as science moves in that direction. It is that ability that you gain as a postdoc to learn new areas, be aware of new areas, and what is coming up.
What is currently on your to-do list, both short term and long term?
For the short term, to handle the recovery from our recent blizzard, which did prevent us from being able to get specimens into our laboratory. There are people waiting to determine if they have cancer or if they are eligible for a transplant. We have had delays, especially in the mountain regions, at getting those samples into the lab. I am also looking at how we can provide better turnaround time for some of the more sensitive testing that we do, and that goes beyond just the technical testing. It includes flights to get specimens to other laboratories, how we staff our labs—which is basically 24/7, but how do we most effectively staff our lab. More exciting to me is looking at a couple of our infectious disease areas of testing that we are currently offering and looking at where we could provide better options to ensure that we are truly covering clinical guidelines.
For the long term, it is something I never thought of as a postdoc or fellow: looking at employee retention, retention planning, and how we develop the staff that we have, whatever level they are at. How do we ensure that they have the opportunity to grow? We aren’t like NIH, where there are so many opportunities to go and listen to talks. We are a single entity. So how do we ensure that people have that ability to grow? This does help us retain people, but [it] also helps us plan for the future. As discipline director, long term, I am looking at ensuring that we provide testing that best guides clinicians and healthcare providers—ordering correctly by not ordering unnecessary things and not ordering things that end up requiring additional testing due to incorrect testing in the first place.
What are your favorite aspects of being a discipline director and technical director?
For the discipline director position, it takes me back to my roots. I love getting to keep up with infectious diseases. It allows me to connect to my time in public health. While I am in a private entity, [I love] the ability to not look at making money but look at how to ensure we are providing the best tests, the minimal tests to provide good patient care. It was a big fear of mine that I would not get to keep in touch with the infectious disease literature. Getting to keep in touch with the science and my previous experience is great. My favorite aspect as technical director is that it forced me to look at supervision, working with people, and helping mentor and grow people… I don’t think that was something that we had classes for in graduate school. That aspect is my favorite and least favorite at the same time.
What do you find most challenging?
I think it is the people aspect. Before, I could focus on my project and my research and not really worry about the people. I am definitely an introvert by nature, so the most challenging part is engaging people in this position across varying levels. We have lots of entry-level positions such as drivers or data entry. That is very different than working with, engaging with, or supervising people with Ph.D.’s or other higher degrees. Certainly, balancing all of the different positions can be challenging at times.
You previously spent a number of years working for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Laboratory. Would you mind telling us a little about your time there?
I started there as a supervisor of public health-microbiology and serology following my time as a fellow with the CDC and in public health. I supervised those areas, working on outbreak testing for any of the important public health concerns such as tuberculosis and rabies. While I was there, I moved up to deputy director, which was really a growth opportunity to look at the path to being a laboratory director. In that role, I oversaw newborn screening, environmental chemistry, and molecular/microbiology testing. After sitting for my boards, I became the laboratory director for the Colorado Public Health and Environment Laboratory. I oversaw all aspects of the laboratory, which expanded to the implementation of the recreational marijuana inspection program, the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) program, the newborn screening program, and evidential breath alcohol testing. Within public health, it was working closely with other state agencies to look at what laws we had in place and what we had to do to meet those laws. I worked closely with the CDC and other state health departments. I also looked at how you perform testing that is largely funded through the federal government and has very little cash income or state support.
Have you found there to be many differences between working in the public versus the private sector?
There are some similarities, some differences. I felt I was going to the dark side from public to industry, but I have learned so many things about business in a laboratory that a public health entity could benefit from. We are very efficient! I have never seen people who work quite like they do—the speed, the intensity. Certainly, there is a business focus in the private sector, but it is patient care that is number one. There is a continued focus on partnering with public health, which I’ve been pleasantly surprised about. I don’t know that I could go back to the slower pace in the public sector; you are pushed in so many directions in the private sector. I do see a lot of parallels with the public health environment especially because I worked in a laboratory, so I feel like having the experience now in both areas has been very beneficial. As for similarities, in public health, you are restricted by what money you have to do the projects and the testing. In the private industry, you are restricted because they don’t want to spend the money, they want to earn it instead. So, you end up looking at efficiencies the same way, but because LabCorp is so big it makes the volume of specimens much larger than that of the public health lab. I can now see how private labs can do things at a lower cost to the patients and to healthcare providers. Certainly, I’ve learned a lot on both sides; they are similar, yet they have their own unique areas.
What made you decide to go into your current role as a discipline director and technical director?
There are two good reasons that I decided to go into my current role: I had never done clinical work, I love research and love public health. I never had an interest in the clinical side, but I felt that a lot of the public health testing had a clinical aspect, and this was a good opportunity for me to push myself in an area I felt I wasn’t prepared for but was able to apply a lot to. The other reason was for me that in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Laboratory, I oversaw the evidential breath alcohol testing branch and I had to start testifying four or five times a week. I was spending more time in court and didn’t have the opportunity to use my skills and training, at least not in the areas that I like, such as infectious disease. The only way I could get that to end was to leave the position. It was a good move in the end—certainly grad school did not prepare me for testimony, but I certainly learned a lot from it.
What was the application/hiring process like? Was the hiring process different for a job in the public versus private sector?
For public health, it was pretty stringent. Certainly, formal interviews—the standard questions but also going into the scientific questioning. When I applied for the position at LabCorp, it really wasn’t much different. It was a little broader and a lot more focused around lab quality, personnel management, and experience working with different groups. In public health, I worked across state departments, which gave me the experience that I could apply here. The different groups now are clients, like physicians or hospitals instead of different laboratories. So, no, I didn’t find the two processes that different. But I do think that there are certain things that I am learning now that I had luckily put as experiences that caught their eye and allowed me to then to qualify to have an interview.
What were those specific qualities?
I think for me it was that I was at the NIH before graduate school and had worked in clinical trials. While I was in research and in public health, I did work with human specimens and worked in the context of regulation. Whether it was clinical trial work or during my postdoc at NIH, it was still translational research and regulation, should it ever go to a patent or go to clinical trial. I made sure I had those skills, but I hadn’t worked in a hospital setting or a reference laboratory at all. My background still had similarities in regulation, how you work with the specimens, and how you document it all. I think they were able to see the crossover into clinical testing.
What activities or resources at NIH, or within NIAID specifically, helped prepare you for your career transition? Is there anything you wish you had taken more advantage of?
I think the things that did prepare me were having the opportunities to go to different seminars, pushing myself to go to seminars that I didn’t think I was that interested in but I would find interesting after having gone. Also having the opportunity to work with some of the cores. I had never done flow cytometry during my undergraduate or graduate career. I had the opportunity to go to the flow cytometry core, and they really took the time to teach and train me. I certainly would never call myself an expert, but I find now that I can say that I have done it and it has certainly has benefitted me. I wish I would have tried to find additional collaboration across the labs within NIAID or the NIH. I know that can be PI-dependent, and I had one that could get connections everywhere, which was helpful. As for participating, interacting at postdoc activities or with groups like the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) was very beneficial.
Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about entering a similar career field? What do you think would make them a competitive candidate?
Absolutely, so I know that in public health and also at LabCorp, they are really pushing to have more and more people who have a Ph.D. Most of us didn’t think of doing clinical work, I certainly never thought of doing the type of work in graduate school, but I feel that coming from the background of research—I wouldn’t change that at all. I think my advice would be to diversify as much as possible. I tend to have a habit to try anything, so that has led me to do different things, which when I put it all together has given me experiences that allow me to get into different places. Even if it is just volunteering at a hospital lab or talking to somebody involved in clinical research. If you are interested in getting into clinical work, find people who are in those positions. For me, in public health, it was other lab directors and other public health people who got me interested and have still continued to serve as my mentors, my advocates, and my referees. If people are interested, and I can only speak to LabCorp, I know that there is a huge push for Ph.D.s and a big concern that there aren’t enough of them. They are not expecting many more Ph.D.s to come in with the experience, so they are starting programs where associate technical directors come in and get trained. I think there are a lot more of those opportunities. On our website, we have each of the directors in different areas. Almost every single person would be happy to talk. I think it is that way in most places. I am not a networking person but I think that is very beneficial if people do that.
Is it okay if current NIAID fellows contact you with questions?
Of course! My email is Gilliml@LabCorp.com