Mice Work If You Can Get It


The Jackson Laboratory ships 2 million mice a year to researchers around the world and is supported by a cadre of scientists who have found new careers between academia and business.

James Fahey, for example, directs his very own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a population of almost a million individuals. He and his medical team work hard to keep their citizens and their keepers healthy and clean, monitoring them closely, testing their water, and watching their food. When epidemics break out--as they inevitably do--Fahey and his group spring quickly into action.

They investigate and diagnose, isolating contaminated individuals to keep the latest parasite or bacterium from running rampant among the population. Postmortem studies help control outbreaks, and, unlike their counterparts at the CDC in Atlanta, they have the option of putting a few of their patients down so that they can do some dissection and microscopic inspection.

Being lab mice, their patients don't complain.

Fahey is chief of diagnostic services at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. As a veterinarian and former research scientist, Fahey and his group monitor the Lab's research and production mice, overseeing their well-being. "When I was in veterinary school," says Fahey, "I never in my life thought I'd be looking at such myriads of small mammals."

Jackson Labs, described recently by The New York Times as "the Mecca of the mouse world," keeps more than 2700 strains of transgenic mice in stock, selling more than 1.9 million mice a year. It is a unique institution that combines fundamental research with industrial-scale production, employing scientists on both sides of the aisle. Many of them have found satisfying careers applying their scientific knowledge and training on the production side of things, servicing scientists around the world with the mouse models they need to investigate cancers, developmental diseases such as Down syndrome, aging-related diseases like Alzheimer's, and the ever widening range of mouse models that serve as proxies for human ailments.

Fahey directs a group of about 15 technicians, all focused on keeping the lab's product healthy and vigorous. As part of Laboratory Health Services, they are involved in everything from basic sanitation to helping analyze unusual phenotypes in new mouse strains and chasing down laboratory epidemics. His deep and broad training is essential: a Ph.D. in immunology from Rutgers University, a postdoctoral appointment at the Trudeau Institute in New York's Adirondack Mountains, and a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Cornell University. He is board-certified as a veterinary microbiologist. Along the way he has worked in a small private veterinary practice, where he took care of cats and dogs, and at a private biotech company, where he helped to develop vaccines. "I knew there'd be a lot to do here," he says of his 1999 start at Jackson Labs, "and there are a lot of ways here I can fulfill my curiosity."

A One-Way Step From the Bench

Fahey's background is typical of many of the scientific staff members at Jackson Labs: a Ph.D., lab bench experience, a postdoc, or some time in private industry. For a variety of reasons they've transitioned into the service side of science, attracted by the opportunity to apply their knowledge, and by the Lab's reputation. Jackson Labs is the world's largest mammalian genetics research institution, with 37 wet-bench and bioinformatics principal investigators, and it is home to the mouse genomics database. Its location in Bar Harbor, Maine, doesn't hurt either; Bar Harbor is a town without a drive-thru restaurant, nestled smack against the rocky mounds and shores of Acadia National Park.

"I wish I could say I had some grand scheme for ending up where I did," says Michael Sasner in his office overlooking a steep Acadia mountain, "but it was totally fortuitous." As manager of technical information services at Jackson Labs, Sasner directs a group of 10 people who support the lab's customers, whether it's by answering basic questions about caring for "Black 6," (a.k.a. C57BL/6J, Jackson's standard female lab mouse at $10.75 a head) or by assisting with feeding the most expensive transgenic strain that goes for $300. Sasner and his team also write technical articles in support of mouse strains, research the scientific literature to help determine which new strains to bring in, and work with database programmers and administrators to present the information online. Sasner earned a Ph.D. in 1992 from the University of Connecticut, where he looked at how neural activity affects the expression of genes in the mouse brain, and five and a half years of postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health. "I wasn't planning not to go into academia," says Sasner, "but then the Jackson Labs opportunity arose. It was an interesting job, in a great place to live, [and] a great place to work," so he, his wife, and their two children made the move back to New England. Sasner started in the lab's informatics group, reading scientific papers and entering gene expression data for specific mouse strains into lab databases. He's been in his current job for almost 3 years and now serves on committees with MBAs and development managers looking to broaden the lab's services.

Sasner stresses to new recruits the importance of understanding the nature of support work. "I don't regret making that step away from the bench," he says. "I had run a thousand PCR reactions in my life, and honestly I didn't mind not running one more. ? But when I interview people, I tell them it [moving into support work] is a one-way step--you're not going to go back to the bench. It's a big decision you have to make."

Motivated to Convince People

As a spouse in a two-Ph.D. marriage, Carol Cutler Linder has found a way to, as she admits, "have my cake and eat it too." As assistant director for genetic resources at Jackson Labs, Linder works remotely from her home in northern New Mexico, combining her Ph.D. in cell and development biology (University of Texas, Austin) with her effervescent personality and people skills in a package that Jackson Labs has decided it can't do without. "This definitely isn't the career I thought I would be doing," she says.

As a postdoctoral researcher in reproductive biochemistry at Washington State University, Linder initially threw away an ad that an advisor had put in her mailbox, seeking a "corporate spokesperson for a small biotech company in the northeast." Encouraged to look again, she fished it out and made a phone call. Her Jackson Labs interviewer said she was perfect. "You're a scientist, but you don't sound like a scientist," something, she says, she gets all the time. She was the first person Jackson Labs hired to be a full-time, 100% resource scientist.

"Most people don't realize I'm a scientist," she admits. "Although I really liked bench science, for me the decision to come to Jackson Labs was a mixture of being a good communicator, and able to talk to people about a lot of different kinds of science, but still think about science." She started in Maine, but when her husband, a Latin American historian, found a tenure-track job at New Mexico Highlands University, they returned to their home state. She convinced Jackson Labs she could do her job from there, she says, admitting that she's a pretty good finagler.

"I really love my job, and I really wanted to keep my job, although I love living in New Mexico. I was really motivated to try and convince people."

Linder now performs a combination of science-related marketing, education, and public relations. She gives talks to institutions and pharmaceutical companies, explaining what Jackson Labs can do for them, helping scientists design experiments, and guiding them on what characteristics of mice they would find useful. Her scientific training is essential, as is her ability to learn quickly.

"I can rapidly grasp what somebody is talking about, even though that's not my area of expertise, and give them some insight," she says. "I know a lot about a lot of things, but not very deep." She's now involved in helping decide the lab's new directions, keeping connected by e-mail, phone, and voice and video conference calls.

Being a self-starter is essential to success as a remote worker, Linder says, as was a few years at the lab's main facility in Maine. "I don't think it would have worked as well if I hadn't been there initially. I have been really, really lucky in that people who are high up in the lab have a lot of respect for me and my knowledge, and I don't think I could have established that if I had started remotely."

In an increasingly virtual world--one populated by ever more information in a rapidly moving industry--Linder and her colleagues are no doubt a step ahead of the curve. It's the kind of curve that seems to extend far into the future.

David Appell ( http://www.nasw.org/users/appell) is a freelance science writer living in Ogunquit, Maine.

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