Jeff Owens is a senior laboratory planner with HERA laboratory planners in Atlanta, GA. Lab Manager recently spoke with Jeff about his career, experience, and personal interests.
Q: How did you get started in your career? Did you major in your field in college, get an internship, switch careers mid-stream, etc.?
A: In college I never once considered or sought to be involved in laboratory facility design—as a scientist with degrees in microbiology and public health, my goal was to develop a new cure or therapeutic for an infectious disease or help solve a public health crisis. However, early in my career working in a lab towards that goal, I found myself gravitating away from the lab bench and towards the infrastructure and operations that supported the science going on inside the space. Growing up I was always “tinkering” with things, taking apart just about anything I could get my hands on, oftentimes to the dismay of my parents. So naturally I was fascinated by the complex systems that made a lab function properly and became even more drawn to situations where those systems did not. Being a problem-solver at my core, I wanted to find out ways to make the lab not only work but work better and help improve the environment where science happens. Understanding both the science and how labs are designed, operated, and maintained gave me a unique perspective that has led me on this wonderful career path where I find myself today.
Q: What’s a common misconception about your job?
A: Working for an architecture and engineering (A/E) firm, most people assume we’re all architects or engineers. While that is mostly true, there are a lot of other very highly skilled and experienced professionals working in this industry. And within the science and healthcare sectors of the A/E industry specifically, I have found nurses and other healthcare practitioners as well as clinical and research laboratorians and other fellow scientists. I have found that laboratory design teams that include these types of individuals on their projects have far more successful outcomes with more efficient and effective laboratory spaces.
Q: What is your favorite building, lab-related or not?
A: I’ll answer this in two parts: one related to a lab, and one that’s not.
First, my favorite lab… This would have to be the Plowright Building for the UK’s Pirbright Institute. It truly flipped the concept of laboratory containment inside out and pushed the boundaries of laboratory design to create truly innovative and inspirational space all the while maintaining all the necessary safety and security measures required to mitigate the risks of the work being conducted. There are many articles written about the lab and it has received several awards and accolades; however, I think the best testament to this facility comes from its own staff (videos here and here, published by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s media relations department).
And my favorite non-lab building? The Winchester House in San Jose, CA. A sprawling Victorian mansion which once served as the private residence of the widow and heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah Winchester. She led the design of the home from the ground up and continued to make improvements, additions, and renovations to the house her entire life, many of which were believed to be done because she felt the house was haunted by all of the individuals that had been killed by her husband’s Winchester rifle. It is an architectural oddity, with hallways and staircases that lead nowhere and doors that exit several floors up with no landings, all in an attempt to “confuse the ghosts.” As a facility planner, I find it fascinating that this building represents the exact opposite as it had no plan whatsoever!
Q: If you won a million-dollar lottery tomorrow, what would you do with your winnings?
A: I’m passionate about public health and if I won the lottery, I would devote time and money to helping solve some of the world’s greatest public health challenges and helping improve access to food, clean water, and medicines around the globe. On a more granular level, I have always been fascinated by approaches to responding to outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases, from West Nile, Zika Virus, Ebola, and more recently SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19. What specifically interests me the most is how different cultures and rituals contribute to the spread of the disease and evaluating methods that can help control and contain the spread, but understanding and being sensitive to these cultural issues at the same.
Q: What kinds of hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?
A: I love the outdoors and staying in shape, and one way I achieve both has been through rowing. I’m a competitive masters (aka “old”) rower, competing in regattas around the region and across the country. I’ve always been a competitive athlete of some sort almost my entire life, but I wasn’t introduced to rowing until more recently when two of my children picked up the sport. Being a “crew parent,” you spend quite a lot of time around the boathouse and on shore and I was given the opportunity to learn how to row during this time. I instantly fell in love with the sport and immediately joined a local adult rowing club where I improved my skills and technique and soon joined the competitive team, as well as serving in various leadership roles within the club where I currently serve as president.