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Making a Positive Impact through Collaborative Leadership

Winner of Lab Manager’s 2024 Outstanding Community Service Award, Joanelis Medina Quintana is an inspiring example of pursuing a purpose-driven career path

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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Individuals who embark on career paths aimed at improving their communities and serving a larger purpose often find themselves on a journey filled with both fulfillment and success. Finding passion in fields that prioritize community betterment not only fuels one's sense of purpose but also fosters a deep-seated commitment to excellence and innovation, leading to significant achievements in their careers.

Each year, Lab Manager honors individuals who demonstrate exceptional leadership and management skills through our Leadership Excellence Awards program. The 2024 Leadership Excellence Awards, sponsored by Uncountable, recognized five individuals for their impressive contributions to their respective organizations. 

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Joanelis Medina Quintana

Joanelis Medina Quintana, laboratory manager at the Puerto Rico Vector Control Unit, was the recipient of the 2024 Outstanding Community Service Award. The judging panel created this award for the first time this year to honor Joanelis’ dedication to safeguarding public health. This has been her mission since 2016, when she was assigned to help with emergency response to the Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico.

Managing editor Lauren Everett recently spoke with Joanelis to hear more about how her passion for helping was a driving factor throughout her career. 

Q: What resources or individuals did you learn your leadership and management skills from?

A: Since the beginning of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work in laboratories like the CDC where I could learn their work culture and focus on safety. I was surrounded by professional colleagues with many years of experience and degrees in clinical diagnosis during the Zika epidemic in Puerto Rico. 

Once I joined the Vector Control Unit as a laboratory specialist, I was given the confidence to establish the first molecular entomology laboratory. The opportunity and confidence provided by Dr. Grayson Brown, executive director of the Vector Control Unit, and the referral from Dr. Tosado, laboratory manager of the CDC Dengue Branch in San Juan, Puerto Rico, provided me with sufficient support to achieve the implementation and management objectives of the laboratory. I had the opportunity to develop a completely new area for the program from its inception.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

A: The opportunity to lead a team and mentor junior staff members is rewarding to me. Guiding others in their professional development and seeing them grow and succeed is a great achievement for me. 

I enjoy contributing to scientific research, problem-solving, and making a tangible impact on public health in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and the United States, if required, by facilitating research projects and contributing to scientific solutions and advancements. I also love working closely with other researchers, scientists, collaborators, or stakeholders, building relationships toward common goals. Being able to constantly evolve and experience professional development is fulfilling.

In your opinion, what are the most important qualities or skills for a laboratory leader to possess?

A: I believe that the most important qualities or skills for a laboratory manager or leader—besides their technical expertise, providing guidance, and making informed decisions—are the key elements based on communication: motivating teamwork, acknowledging others' skills, respectfully providing constructive feedback, and communicating clearly to foster collaboration and inclusive work environments. Supporting the growth and development of team members is essential for building a skilled and motivated workforce. Creating an optimistic and respectful environment translates into great attitudes and work from the team. I firmly believe that integrity and ethical conduct as a laboratory leader are crucial for obtaining quality results, which means it is important to foster a culture of honesty and transparency. 

Scientific research can be unpredictable; therefore, attitude, adaptability, and flexibility are qualities necessary for success. Overall, a successful laboratory leader possesses a combination of technical expertise, leadership abilities, problem-solving skills, organizational capabilities, adaptability, integrity, and a commitment to mentorship and professional development. These qualities enable them to effectively lead their team, navigate challenges, and drive scientific innovation by setting an example.

“I firmly believe that integrity and ethical conduct as a laboratory leader are crucial for obtaining quality results, which means it is important to foster a culture of honesty and transparency.”

Q: How do you personally manage the balance between performing managerial/admin tasks versus your passion to be involved with the scientific work done in the lab?

A: To be honest, at the beginning, it was difficult. I wanted to be involved in all experiments and control everything. However, time and experience made me understand that the best practice is to prioritize and delegate tasks that I identified could be handled by other team members. I established a structured schedule to help me keep all tasks organized between management or administrative and laboratory technical work, resulting in clear boundaries between administrative and scientific work. I optimized all laboratory procedures and workflows, fostered collaborations and teamwork within the lab by sharing workloads and focusing on specific goals and priorities of my role. I believe that by implementing these strategies, I was able to maximize my productivity and satisfaction in both aspects of my role: as a manager and as a scientist.

Q: What is one of the hardest challenges you’ve faced so far in your career? What learnings did you take from it?

A: One of the toughest challenges I've encountered in my career as a laboratory manager has been navigating periods of change, such as organizational restructuring or public health threats like epidemics. Both situations demand immediate adaptability, necessitate difficult decisions, and require resilience in the face of uncertainty. However, I've learned from each experience to embrace change as an opportunity for growth and learning. I've built resilience by fostering positive mindsets within the team and approaching challenges with a proactive and solution-oriented mindset.

Q: What’s the best piece of management and/or leadership advice you can share with our readers?

A: I consider myself a team player! One of the best pieces of management and leadership advice I can offer is to prioritize effective communication and foster a culture of open dialogue within your team or organization. Clear and transparent communication is essential for building trust, aligning goals, and ensuring that everyone is on the same page. As a leader, it's crucial to communicate openly with your team members, providing them with clear expectations, feedback, and guidance. Encourage them to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns, and actively listen to their perspectives. Foster constructive discussions, value diverse viewpoints, and create opportunities for everyone to contribute to decision-making processes. By prioritizing effective communication and creating a culture of open dialogue, you can strengthen relationships within your team, enhance collaboration, and empower your team members to perform at their best. This approach lays the foundation for success and enables your team to overcome challenges and achieve shared goals together.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years in your role?

A: In the next few years, I hope to achieve milestones such as completing my doctoral dissertation, publishing research findings, and gaining hands-on experience in science policy development, and advocacy, especially in public health and entomology. Additionally, I aim to build a strong professional network, collaborate with peers and mentors, and contribute to meaningful projects that address public health challenges and inform evidence-based policymaking. By pursuing these goals, I will continue to expand my knowledge, skills, and influence in epidemiology, entomology, and science policy, making valuable contributions to public health and shaping the future of scientific research and policymaking in Puerto Rico.

Joanelis’ career journey:

Joanelis Medina Quintana currently serves as the laboratory manager for the Puerto Rico Vector Control Unit, a program of the Puerto Rico Science and Research Trust. She completed her master’s degree in molecular biology and is currently a PhD candidate in Public Health Environmental Epidemiology. With extensive experience in working with vector-borne diseases and pathogens, she played a pivotal role in responding to a Zika outbreak in Puerto Rico in 2016. During this outbreak, she was assigned to the diagnostics team at the CDC Dengue Branch in San Juan, PR, where she received training in a variety of assays ranging from immunodiagnostics to molecular diagnostics.

Subsequently, Joanelis was recommended by the CDC to join the Puerto Rico Vector Control Unit, where she spearheaded the establishment and implementation of a molecular laboratory facility on the island. This facility has the capacity to test over 1,200 mosquito pools weekly to identify arboviruses or potential pathogens from samples collected in Puerto Rico and internationally.

Additionally, she served as a biology professor at public and private universities in PR for four years. The combination of her academic training and work experience in the fields of laboratory and entomological sciences has positioned Ms. Medina Quintana as a strong candidate for official Board Certification in Entomology and as an ESA Science Policy Fellow in Washington, DC.