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Professional Profile: Leslie Ashor

Lab Manager speaks to Leslie Ashor of HOK

MaryBeth DiDonna

Leslie Ashor is director of science & technology with HOK, based in the San Francisco studio. Lab Manager recently spoke with Leslie about her 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: After graduating with a bachelor of architecture, my first jobs entailed corporate office tenant improvements in San Diego high rises. It was a great training ground, as the projects are fast and I learned how to work with the clients, coordinate with the engineers, and make field decisions during construction in a relatively short amount of time. It was also frustrating at times—for example when the clients would measure their offices and complain that lining the wall up with the window mullion made their partners’ office a few square feet larger, or that the color scheme did not coordinate with a painting they just purchased. After all that, the lease might only be five years, then it is all torn down and started over for someone else, which eventually felt rather futile. When I began working on biotech tenant improvements, a lightbulb went off in my head: the spaces I was designing actually enabled life-changing and life-saving research and development. I was hooked. Plus, it is fun to work with really smart people, it is a continual learning experience. 

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

A: Before 2020, I spent 20 years on the road, travelling to international destinations as well as all across the United States, working with universities, government institutions, research institutes, and industry on a wide range of lab types. It was very exciting and sometimes exhausting. Additionally, I have spoken at multiple conferences globally, so there was no such thing as a typical day; every day was a new adventure with more to learn and create, more people with whom to meet and interact. Since the lockdowns I have not been in an airplane, and while it feels like a part of me is missing, life has definitely become more Zen. Continually adapting to the way work must be done now is definitely a challenge, but I am always open to growth and learning new ways to approach how we collaborate, design, and exchange information.

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

A: There was actually a time earlier in my career when I considered going to medical school, because I wanted to be a pediatric reconstructive plastic surgeon. It was way before I started designing labs, when I was not feeling challenged by my work, and wanted to make a difference in the world. My father-in-law was a heart surgeon, so we had many conversations about what starting over with medical school would mean to me, my family, and my career. He was very encouraging, but noted that I would just be entering that new career at an age when I could be very established and successful as an architect, so maybe I should focus on an architecture more aligned with my aspirations to make a difference. Obviously, he was onto something, and I know this is what I was meant to do with my career. 

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

A: Some people, especially in the design profession, think that all labs pretty much look alike so it must be a cushy but boring job to design them. In reality, there are so many types of labs, diverse needs, and challenging codes and regulations that to me it never gets old. Maybe as architects we do a disservice to the sciences by only showing the pretty pictures that probably do look similar. I think it would be far more interesting to show the fascinating things done in labs—for example, the bionic retina cGMP space, or the amazing physics laser labs, and BSL3 spaces I have had the privilege of designing. Science can be messy and captivating at the same time, and I love celebrating that labs are not picture-perfect spaces.

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

A: More than anything I love travel and adventure; by flying, road trips, hiking, white water rafting—there is still a lot of the world I’d love to explore! My spare time hobby is designing and building things, and generally my passion exceeds my skills, but luckily ‘rustic’ is a thing. I have recycled old redwood decks and fences into outdoor furniture, a chicken coop, and raised bed gardens. Gardening is another thing that has been great during the lockdowns, an escape that is productive and rewarding! 

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years in this new position?

A: For over 20 years I have enthusiastically embraced sustainability in laboratory architecture, continually looking for the elements that can be reduced, right-sized, and better designed to support good stewardship of our planet without sacrificing safety and function. The HOK DNA focus on the environment supports developing innovative sustainability solutions, with internal expertise to brainstorm the next best thing. The opportunity to collaborate with cross-sector experts, such as our internal engineers and chief medical officer, to push the evolution of design is beyond inspiring, and I can’t wait to see what we dream up.

In my education and career, multiple mentors invested significant time and effort to teach and encourage me to new levels, and I am motivated to passing that on, to keep raising the bar for such a wide range of project types. Maybe the next trend in lab design will be based on another planet. Who knows what the evolving science and technology world will need to support their work—that is what keeps me going!