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Lab Design Conference Speaker Profile: Jeff Talka

Jeff Talka is a science & technology consultant and speaker at the Lab Design Conference

by Vaishna Rajakumar
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Jeff Talka, AIA, LEED AP is a science & technology consultant in Portland, ME. He will be speaking in the Lab Manager track at this year's Lab Design Conference and will cover the tools and influences behind curating a path for project identification, design, and execution for lab managers and designers. Lab Manager spoke to Jeff about his career, hobbies, and the conference.

Jeff Talka is a speaker at the Lab Design Conference - Lab Manager track

Q: How did you get started in your career?

A: At a fairly early age, I loved to draw, plus I was interested in the sciences. When I was in high school at Brooklyn Tech, I took the required major science courses, which I thoroughly enjoyed and did well at the subject. So when it came time to choose a major for my last two years there, I was on the fence between chemistry and architecture. Architecture won out, and I received a bachelor of architecture from Pratt Institute. Now, I lead science and technology at S/L/A/M and collaborate with some of the most interesting people in the biomedical, pharmaceutical, academic, and corporate sectors. I have the best of both worlds.

Q: If you weren't in this profession, what job would you like to have instead?

A: I’d probably be retired. Seriously though, early on, I played hockey and was very good at it. I thought about pursuing a career as a professional hockey player. But I was also interested in becoming an architect. I had been accepted to McGill University in Montreal, where I thought I could pursue hockey, but I didn’t want to go through an additional year of school to obtain a Canadian high school equivalency prior to five years of architecture school. I went to Pratt Institute instead, which was probably the better choice.

Q: What are some of your career highlights so far?

A: I think that having the opportunity to serve on industry-related committees and boards has given me great exposure to the people who make up our profession. This involvement has given me opportunities to share my experiences and expertise for the advancement of the profession and the built environment which serves others. In the past, I have served on several NIH Grant review boards, which have provided needed funding for projects to aid in discovery. I have also served on the Lab of the Year awards jury. I’m very active in SEFA, which develops recommended practices for lab design. I’m now currently on the Historic Preservation Board in Portland, ME.

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

A: I was project manager for the 310,000 sq. ft. Janssen Pharmaceutica US Headquarters at Washington’s Crossing in New Jersey. Janssen is the bio-pharma research arm of Johnson & Johnson. In the corporate world, financial accountability is paramount. At an owner’s meeting during construction, the construction manager presented several change orders. One was for $50,000 and was related to some mechanical/electrical coordination misses. The owner’s representative asked me how this happened. I basically said we screwed up. The owner’s response was, “OK, we’ll pay it.” I didn’t try to double-talk my way out of the situation but instead met it with honesty. This was a testament to the relationship that was built between the design team, the construction manager, and the owner. Janssen turned out to be one of the best projects I’ve ever worked on.

Q: What is one important skill that all lab design experts should have? 

A: I would say it’s two-fold; the ability to communicate and the possession of the knowledge to allow you to communicate in a significant way. I see lab design experts as being multi-faceted, having the knowledge of how the lab needs to operate, the knowledge of current trends, and knowledge of engineering systems which support the lab. In this way, the lab expert can be positioned as the leader of the team, driving creative thought in a holistic manner.

Q: What do you think is crucial for the success of lab design in the future?

A: We need to align ourselves and our designs with the evolution of science and how research is conducted. We also need to take advantage of the new possibilities which computing presents, like virtual reality. Science develops at a very rapid rate; however, buildings take a long time to develop. There must be a way that we can predict the outcomes of our design well before they are constructed.

Q: Why were you interested in participating in this year's conference?

A: One of the things I have most enjoyed is being a mentor and teacher. I am looking forward to presenting my expertise to educate my audience in a meaningful way. I am also looking forward to the camaraderie of the event and the exchange of ideas with peers. That’s how the profession progresses, and the level of lab design is raised.

Q: For someone entering this career field, what advice would you give them?

A: My advice to the younger professionals is to conduct yourself with honesty, integrity, and grace. That will help you to become a trusted advisor, as I have become.

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

A: Hands down, the Chrysler Building in New York City. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I had great views of the Manhattan skyline, and Chrysler stood out to me as an icon. As I researched the building, I continued to fall in love with it. The art deco period of design has been a favorite of mine, and the Chrysler Building is the flagship of that era. I also enjoyed the story of how the building became the tallest in the world for a short while; the spire was never anticipated and was raised in place overnight, to the surprise of the world. Interestingly enough, at The Ehrenkrantz Group in NYC, I worked on historic preservation of the building’s exterior.

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

A: I love to do things that involve working with my hands and, at the same time, being creative. I developed an interest in, and love of, cooking while in high school. I like to experiment with food preparation and developing new recipes. I’m also a drummer. I learned this skill as a teenager, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. And, of course, I still love to draw.

Q: What's your typical order when you visit a coffee shop?

A: I don’t really go to a coffee shop for morning coffee. Instead, I’ll go mid-morning or afternoon to meet with people out of the office. This would happen a lot during the pandemic. I would order iced coffee. I always had some cold coffee before playing in a hockey game—seems to settle my stomach.