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Professional Profile: Isabel Mandujano

Lab Manager speaks to Isabel Mandujano of LPA

MaryBeth DiDonna

Isabel Mandujano is director of laboratory planning at LPA in Irvine, CA. Lab Manager recently spoke with Isabel about her career, experience, and personal interests.

Q: How did you get started in this career?

A: I started out designing buildings for higher education, and that’s where I first became aware of lab planning as a career path. I was lucky to have great mentors very early on, who helped me find a career that aligns so well with my interests and strengths. Later, when I had the opportunity to work on a very large project for a pharmaceutical research firm, I knew that I really found my calling. It gives me a great sense of purpose to work on spaces where scientists are finding innovative ways to cure cancer and other important diseases. 

Q: What is a typical day at work like for you?

A: No two days are the same. I could be collaborating with architecture and engineering teams on a design for a lab, or working with lab managers and scientists to learn about their process and develop a vision and program. Much of what I do involves keeping up-to-date with the latest standards, technology, and trends, so I spend a lot of time reading and researching. I also frequently visit project sites to evaluate existing conditions or review the construction progress. Another part of my job is mentoring staff who are interested in beginning a career in laboratory planning. And I’m always looking to share the industry’s latest research with the project team.

Q: If you weren’t in this profession, what job do you think you’d be doing instead?

A: Process engineering—where you take raw materials and transform them into a final product—is very interesting to me. Data science is another area that I find fascinating. There’s so much data all around us, and being able to analyze, make sense of, and develop recommendations based on the data sounds so interesting.

Q: What’s a common misconception about your job?

A: Some people think all labs are created equal. Put a few benches in a room and you’re done. But in reality, there is an incredible amount of diversity when it comes to labs. There are life science labs, semiconductor and electronics labs, engineering labs, educational teaching labs, clinical testing labs, forensic labs, and animal research labs, among others. Every lab type has its own intricacies and challenges and I’ve found that no two projects are the same. They’re all unique, and that is what keeps me learning and interested in the industry.

Q: What is the biggest work-related challenge you’ve faced? How did you overcome it?

A: It’s been a challenge for so many, but nobody could have imagined the way COVID changed how we do our work. During the pandemic, I’ve worked with many companies on the forefront of researching and responding to the crisis, which has led to an incredible year of growth and learning. It’s been extremely busy, and I think we’ve all emerged with a renewed sense of resiliency. 

The lines of personal and professional life have blurred, which also gave us an appreciation of the people we work with and the lives they have outside of work. It’s more difficult to make that connection virtually, but we’ve learned creative ways to connect even when we can’t be physically close.   

Q: What is your favorite building, lab-related or not?

A: It’s hard to pick just one, but if I had to choose, I would say the library at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, which I had the opportunity to spend time in when I was a student there. There is a whimsical quality to it, and it’s a true community space that really stood out to me as a fantastic design inside and out. It was designed by the Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo.

Q: What lab project are you working on at the moment?

A: There has been an explosion in demand for lab space in recent years and a significant lack of inventory. That’s driven the reimagination of existing properties and conversion into laboratories—which can be done much faster than ground-up development but comes with its own set of challenges.   

Q: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you at work?

A: When I was an architectural intern, I showed up to a construction site in sandals, which got a lot of laughs. I was completely unprepared, and people made fun of me for my “steel-toed sandals.” Now, I always make sure to carry a set of boots and closed-toe shoes in my trunk so I’m prepared in any situation—even in the Texas summer heat.

Q: If you won a million-dollar lottery tomorrow, what would you do with your winnings?

A: Being stuck at home during the pandemic renewed my interest in travel, so I would allocate one third to exploring all of the places I’ve wanted to visit. Another third would go to my retirement and my child’s college education fund, while the last third would go to a cause I care about. With the uptick in homelessness in my area, I would love to make a large donation to help people get back on their feet. 

Q: What kinds of hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

A: I’ve always wanted to play the drums. The pandemic was the perfect opportunity to buy a drum set and get started. I’ve enjoyed learning how to play, in addition to continuing to play the flute, piano, and guitar—which I’ve done since I was younger.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in your new position?

A: What attracted me to LPA is its reputation for design excellence, high-performance buildings, and taking the challenges of climate change seriously. I’m looking forward to bringing my expertise to LPA’s integrated, interdisciplinary design team and finding new approaches to creating laboratory designs that are better for people and better for the planet.