Perspective On: A Biotech Lab

Jonathan V. Sweedler is a busy man: he runs a large research group in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the principal investigator for the UIUC Center for Neuroproteomics on Cell-Cell Signaling and the director of the Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center.

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Biotech Center Director and PI, Jonathan Sweedler, Manages it All

Jonathan V. Sweedler is a busy man: he runs a large research group in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the principal investigator for the UIUC Center for Neuroproteomics on Cell-Cell Signaling and the director of the Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center (CBC)—a service facility that provides stateof- the-art research infrastructure to investigators on and off campus to enable life sciences research.

Specifically, CBC provides services in the areas of genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and DNA sequencing, among others.

“We try to enable researchers to do their best research, so we might measure expression profiles, sequence microbial genomes completely [or] we might be identifying proteins that change during a treatment,” says Sweedler. “So what we do depends a lot on the individual we’re working with.”

The center supports more than 220 on-campus researchers scattered throughout 38 entities—from the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology to the College of Veterinary Medicine—as well as off-campus researchers and companies.

“About 600 individuals bring in samples every year, so we are, if you want to think of it, a business within the University of Illinois whose major job is to analyze samples, give data to researchers and in some cases to produce products such as antibodies or specific transgenic mice,” explains Sweedler.

“We work with individuals with diverse technical backgrounds— from real experts driving technology development to faculty who are not used to working in an area. We really accommodate everyone,” he adds.

Facility structure

Distributed across five buildings, CBC occupies about 10,000 square feet of space on the university’s Urbana campus and comprises five different units. The W.M. Keck Center and the Proteomics Center are the largest of the group, followed by the Carver Metabolomics Center, the Transgenic Mouse Facility and the Career Services Office.

The Proteomics Center, composed of three units—Flow Cytometry Facility, Immunological Resource Center and Protein Sciences Facility—is involved in protein and cell characterization. “The proteomics facility has the ability to identify and quantify proteins, so somebody could have a piece of animal tissue or plant material and we can separate out and analyze its protein content,” Sweedler explains.

The focus of the W.M. Keck Center is genomics, with researchers involved in comparative genetic organization, evolution and function of plant, animal and microbial genomes. The Keck Center is divided into high-throughput sequencing and genotyping, functional genomics and bioinformatics.

“If you think of the molecules of life, most people would list DNA, RNA and proteins,” Sweedler says. “The center provides the expertise and the facilities to sequence and quantify DNA and RNA.”

The Metabolomics Center identifies and quantifies metabolites of plants, animals and humans, and the Transgenic Mouse Facility supplies genetically engineered mice to researchers—a task that Sweedler explains is labor intensive.

Lastly, the CBC has a Career Services Office, a unique interface for recruiters that exists mainly because biotechnology reaches across various fields.

“I don’t know of other university biotechnology centers that do that,” Sweedler explains. “The Career Services Office basically [exists] because recruiters come to this campus and want to hire somebody who, for example, understands molecular biology, and they might have to interview people in multiple departments— animal sciences, molecular and cellular biology, veterinary medicine—and they don’t like to do that so they come to us and ask for a recommendation.

“Long ago, we became the campus contact for recruiters in the areas of biotechnology and then we’d reach out to all the units on campus so that the companies didn’t have to,” he adds. “In this way, our Career Services Office was created.”

Although Sweedler is the director of CBC, he insists that the management of the center, its 36 full-time staff— with backgrounds in bioinformatics, engineering, plant biology and genomics, among others—plus the students who work part time in the various facilities, is a shared task.

“I don’t go through all the different units every day,” he says. “Mark Mikel, the associate director, goes to the labs more often. And the individual facility managers really are the points of contact, so I guess it’s somewhat of a pyramid structure.”

Inventory and maintenance

The individual facilities within CBC each have vastly different maintenance and inventory needs. For example, the Keck Center inventory may be more instrument based, whereas the Transgenic Mouse Facility may need to conduct an inventory of the animals. Therefore, with the assistance of their staff, each director and lab manager takes care of the day-to-day inventory and maintenance. And unless the purchase or maintenance is above a certain dollar amount, Sweedler doesn’t get involved.

But when it comes to negotiations or equipment whose operating costs may run more than the initial purchase price, he works his hardest to get the best deal for the university. An example of this is the work on DNA sequencing.

“The interesting thing about DNA sequencing is it’s almost like the inkjet printer model where you could buy an inkjet printer cheaply for, I’ll make up an amount, $100, but then you end up spending $40 every time you buy an ink cartridge. So over the lifetime of a printer the ink costs many times more than the printer,” he explains.

“You may spend $400,000 on a sequencing platform, but the ‘inks,’ the reagents for it, end up costing many times more than that. So we do get involved in negotiations for the reagents because those add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions, in some cases. So you could call that an inventory, and we do help the individual managers because such large purchases also have to follow a large number of federal and state rules.”

Challenges

CBC, being part of the state of Illinois and part of a state university, is affected by budget fluctuations at the government level. Their funding is about 50 percent service revenue, 30 percent university supported and 20 percent from outside grants and other off-campus sources. This, Sweedler explains, is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of his job.

“A recent example is the furloughs state workers must take,” he says. “Many members of the biotechnology center are state employees; they’re paid by the university and so they have to take the furloughs. But a few employees are completely on research grants and they don’t take furloughs, and those types of issues cause morale issues [and] challenges.”

So how does he keep the morale up in a unit that’s doing very well and keep things moving forward? The secret, according to Sweedler, is effective communication and the right attitude.

“A lot of it, I think, is how you project positive,” he says, and adds that he often compliments the staff on how well they are doing and tries to explain the constraints they are under. For example, the university created a policy of no raises, and so Sweedler ensures that everyone realizes the lack of a raise is not about them but for reasons beyond his control.

“The bigger issue we have, I think, is that the people who work at the biotechnology center are incredibly well trained, and many can get jobs at other places, and so how do you keep them here?”

Sweedler believes that giving his staff ample freedom is one way to ensure that they stick around and stay happy at work.

“If they’re convinced that a different set of services would help people, let them try it,” he explains. “If they want to, for example, expand in an area, you explain what it would take in terms of outside support or finding people to make this a reality, and help them write the grants if that’s what they want.

“Give them the freedom to try new things as much as possible to prove that ideas would work or not work. So I think the biggest thing is empowering employees to feel ownership as much as possible.”

Although the employees may not always be monetarily rewarded, working at a university and for the state gives them job security that may not always come with a bigger paycheck.

“It’s not likely if there was a slowdown lasting six months that we’d get rid of people,” Sweedler says.

Balancing act

While Sweedler is the director and CBC staff report to him, he himself reports to the vice chancellor for research and has to adhere to rules set by the university.

“I have an advisory committee that can instruct me and tell me what I’m doing right or wrong, and so I have to deal with many inputs at that level,” Sweedler says. “It may, to many faculty, seem like I get to set prices, but we have a university office that can actually overrule anything that we come up with.

“There are, in essence, rules in what we charge, what direct cost rates are and every other aspect, so what I tend to do is be the interface from the center to the outside world, which is the rest of the university.

“That’s the other side of it; there’s a lot of interfacing and management that goes through the other direction and so it’s a balancing act.”

Additionally, he manages a research group with his professor hat on that consists of 18 graduate students, four staff and four postdoctoral associates. As part of this responsibility, he is the principal investigator for the Center for Neuroproteomics on Cell-Cell Signaling, a National Institute on Drug Abuse center that investigates neuropeptides and hormones.

“I guess to state it simply, the goal of a research group is different than [that of] many companies. We have two outputs—one is research results in the form of scientific publications and the other is people,” Sweedler says. “My group trains scientists for jobs in industry, and this training is at least as important as the research results.”

“I have to balance these two distinct jobs, but both involve very different management styles and goals.”

For his research group, Sweedler holds weekly meetings in the labs and also meets with every individual in his research group to ensure that all is running smoothly and all the information from above is correctly passed on to his teams. Time permitting, he also walks through as many labs as possible each week.

So how does he do it all?

“Dealing with the students and keeping the research group going is probably the one thing, long term, that’s most exciting to me,” Sweedler says. “Keeping the biotechnology center state-of-the-art and moving forward, keeping it responsive to everyone on campus and keeping the staff happy is another area of excitement.

“They’re very different jobs but it’s kind of fun to have so many different aspects to my daily routine, which says that my routine is not very routine.”

Published In

Global Management Magazine Issue Cover
Global Management

Published: July 1, 2010

Cover Story

Global Management

Forming and managing effective global research teams with members located in far-flung countries and different time zones is a major challenge for lab managers at multinational companies and at companies outsourcing lab work overseas.